Rewriting “Blowin’ in the Wind” (updated 10/20/22)

In Ask Greil, June 26, 2022, Greil writes: “[Dylan] currently has a Martin Shkreli-like single copy re-recording of ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ up for auction with an estimate of $600,000-1,000,000*. Would like to hear it myself. I doubt that whatever else it might be or represent, the actual music will have been ruined by capitalism. Except that, unless there’s a mole in Christie’s, I won’t get to hear it.”

This triggered a reader-driven conversation about “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the excerpts of which are below.

The re-recorded “Blowin’ in the Wind” is now circulating on YouTube, so I was wondering what you thought of this version of the song and the broader Ionic Originals project.
– George

…This is mainly thoughtful. The sound of someone—maybe not just Dylan—thinking over the song and all the time it has passed through and gathered to itself in reality and fantasy (Malcolm X reciting it in One Night in Miami), about how it’s joined the old folk song it was based on and become a folk song itself, in the sense that, as Dylan once said, when he sings it “it doesn’t even occur to me that this is something I wrote.” I love the way the rhythm of “No More Auction Block” is brought out, almost but not quite dramatized in the transitions between verses. The elegance of the performance highlights an element of the sing-song that always galls me: the “some people” reference, which is musically clumsy (it’s a verbal pothole), politically vague, and linguistically so weak as to to be self-cancelling. He should just say “people.”

…I disagree with you… regarding the words “some people” in the lines “How many years can some people exist/Before they’re allowed to be free?” I think Dylan’s wording means that some people are not free (Black, for instance), while others are free. If he just said “people,” it would not be specific enough to relate to any injustices. It is akin to those who, in response to “Black Lives Matter,” say, “yeah, but ALL lives matter.” Yes, they do, but that’s not the point.
– Christopher Dunn

I know what it means. I just think it’s clumsy writing.

RE: “Blowin’ In The Wind.” SOME People Don’t Know When They’re STILL Sick. Back To The Sack, O Really Us. St. X.
– Sean X. Heaney

My decoder ring is broken.

…I agree, “How many years can some people exist?” is clumsy af. Still, how else could Dylan have phrased such a sentiment?
– Billy

I’m stumped. I’ve fooled around in my head with “our people” and just “people” but they don’t work. Any more ideas?

From reading Expecting Rain I get links to Ask Greil… and came upon the “Blowin’ in the Wind” questions, in response to which u declare a line “clumsy writing.”
     He was what? 21 when he wrote it?
     21! I think you thinking that is kind of ridiculous thinking .
     My question is…[see Ask Greil]
– James O’ Donnell

Apologies to AG readers who may be tired of those taking a scalpel to “Blowin’ In The Wind,” but the comment from Billy [8/31] got me to actually read the lyrics to the song, and that gave me reason to climb on. In 40+ years of listening to and seeing Dylan, I don’t think I ever bothered to read those words. Why would you? They’re clear as a dinner bell on the record, and they’ve been quoted in a galaxy of writing. But when I did look at them in print, something about the song hit me like a hammer on my toes: The song could be conversation, not monologue.
     The part I always found, well, maybe not clumsy, but too old-timey was the little rhythmic trick of starting the verse lines with “Yes, and…” But suddenly, I see that phrase as essential, because now I imagine each line is an interjection into another person’s speech. Someone asks the first rhetorical (“how many roads”) and then emphasizes his or her concern by adding the second (“how many seas”). Having raised some attention in the town square or tavern, a second person stands up and joins in, perhaps only trying to upstage the first, but beginning with agreement: “Yes! and…” then continuing with their concern about cannonballs.
     Each subsequent line of verse now seems like another person has walked up to the group with their point to make. Who are they? The line about mountains sounds like a Jewish voice to me. The next, about people being free, could be a black woman, or maybe a Honduran who just walked to Texas only to be bused to Washington. It’s an old ashamed white man, maybe, who talks about turning his head. You could insert anyone you want into the play, and you can change the time and place of the gathering a hundred different ways. You could even score it into a hack Hamilton (“Blowin’! comes to Broadway”).
     Have you ever read any of Dylan’s songs this way, where what seems to be the voice of one could be the voice of many? I can recall him describing conversations, but not voicing groups.
     Now, back to the parlor game: If we put the lines into the mouths of characters, the word to choose over “some” might be “my.”
– Glenn Burris

That’s a marvelous notion. It matches, reinforces, the open and metaphorically inclusive nature of the song. Recently another contributor here made the same suggestion about “Lo and Behold!” which makes sense if you just look at lyrics and not how the song is sung, which is irrevocably in one voice—but you can hear different voices in “Blowin’ in the Wind.” I wish I’d thought of that: it would be two more pages in the opening chapter of my Folk Music**, which is “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
     As for ‘my people,’ I think that would be taking appropriation a bridge-on-the-River-Kwai too far.

Re: your thoughts on Bob Dylan’s “clumsy” line in “Blowin’ In The Wind”: I don’t share that view. I’ve always liked that line and don’t detect clumsiness in it. To me, “How many years can some people exist before they’re allowed to be free”—like the entire lyric of the song—scans and sounds like the writing of a raw untutored kid formulating a vision for a new type of art, feeling his way toward it, and, with “Blowin’ In The Wind,” making a big leap forward in his quest. Of course he’s not “there” yet—nowhere near there really—but my god is he ever on his way.
     On the other hand, if one were to insist that the line in question had to be changed, it occurs to me that you could replace “some” with “a” without doing damage, and some might even find it an improvement: “How many years can a people exist before they’re allowed to be free.” What do you think?
     To bolster this idea, see this pertinent, brief discussion about the use of the phrase “a people,” which, to me, is enlightening in this context.
— Pete Fehrenbach

I think you’ve got it, all around, first with your argument that ‘some’ is both ok and a sign of a writer finding his feet, and in suggesting ‘a’ as a substitute. That immediately struck me as not only right but deep, because while black people or African-Americans are not commonly referred to as a ‘people,’ Jews are: and this links blacks and Jews as outsiders. As Dylan points out in Chronicles, Minneapolis when he arrived in 1959 was notoriously anti-Semitic (Jewish doctors really couldn’t practice there)—it’s not as if it would have been a rumor to him. So thanks.

I was thinking about the lyrics of “Blowin’ in the Wind”—I like “some people” because it sounds kind of accusatory/judgemental…implying “some people” don’t get it. One of Dylan’s lyrics I just noticed was “Tomorrow is a Long Time” when I was listening to Dion’s version, where it says “heart softly pounding”…can anything pound softly?
– Peter Danakas

Greil, I just wanted to apologize for my nonsensical comments about “Blowin’ in the Wind”….I completely misremembered the lyrics (at my age it’s dangerous to rely solely on my memory), and I thought the “some people” referred to the oppressors not the oppressed.
– Peter Danakas

Doesn’t matter. I think it still works.

RE: Blowin’ In the Wind
I think I prefer John Fogerty’s “Wrote a Song for Everyone” (not necessarily a better song):

“Saw the people standing,
Thousand years in chains
Somebody said it’s different now,
Look it’s just the same.”

Hope you are well.
– Bo Brynerson

Can’t argue with that. And it’s such a realistic song. What it’s really about is that the answers aren’t blowing in the wind: there are no answers, and even if there were, you can’t get them across: “Wrote a song for everyone/And I couldn’t even get to you.” You make me wonder if, somewhere in its genesis, it’s an answer record to “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

Greil: Just listened again to Odetta’s recording of “Blowin’ in the Wind.” She was apparently completely attuned to the “some people” problem: she sings “people.”

*The final selling price of “Blowin’ in the Wind’ (2022) was $1.7 million.
**Folk Music: A Bob Dylan Biography in Seven Songs is out October 11.

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