I have a confession. I have never liked Bob Dylan’s 1962 version of ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ but I have always loved the Peter, Paul and Mary version released in 1963. It’s one of those rare moments when, in my mind, the cover version of a song aces the original. Maybe it is because I heard the cover version long before I knew the original. Or did I first hear this song in church and then subsequently, I heard the Peter Paul and Mary one, countless times on radio?
Regardless of the circumstances of my first encounter with Blowin’ in the Wind, I am always captivated by the harmonising in the Peter, Paul and Mary version. Their voices give the song’s philosophical inquiry real power, collective guilt and urgency. In Dylan’s nasal solo, the song lacks oomph. The lyrics echo in loneliness, miserable rather than driven; radiating the kind of haunted emptiness that you don’t want to be dragged into.
Still, these Dylan lyrics capture the essence of humanity so poignantly that ‘Blowin’’ in the Wind has inspired numerous cover versions from a considerable cast of musicians. I can count 10 recordings including a guttural 1966 rendition by Stevie Wonder and a sweet, 2005 soprano interpretation by Dolly Parton.
When the Swedish Academy named Bob Dylan winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, it focused on his “tremendous influence on popular music”, his versatility as an artist who “created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”; an artist whose work has been “the object of a steady stream of secondary literature”.
Like the prolific British-Indian novelist Salman Rushdie, I think that “the frontiers of Literature keep widening” so I agree, fully, with the Swedish Academy that songs are a credible and intrinsic part of the artistic expressions that we call Literature. The fact that they are more often sung rather than read, doesn’t take that away from them. Songs are quite capable of having intellectual depth and long-lasting artistic merit. There are great, definitive songs in the same way that there are ground-breaking novels, memorable plays and classic poems.
Likewise, there are many bad songs, just as there is a legion of flat novels, unworthy plays and mundane poems. A song is unworthy when it lacks melody. It is even more unremarkable when its lyrics carry drab, banal word-play or a mechanical, rather than a mind-teasing structure. The tools of literary analyses help us to unlock the meaning of popular music — its lyrics, its performance and its reception.
Dylan has always been an experimental artist. He has tried new art forms and he has pushed the boundaries of existing genres. He recently published six books of drawings and paintings and major art galleries have exhibited his art.
In 1971 he published Tarantula, a collection of prose and poetry that he wrote between 1965 and 1966. Like the lyrics of his music from that period, Tarantula explores protest issues and everyday observations on the street. The language is playful sometimes and angry in other instances, reflecting turbulent emotions in turbulent socio-political times.
In a December 1965 interview in San Francisco, Dylan was asked whether he thought of himself “primarily as a singer or as a poet”. His tongue-in-cheek reply was delivered with a cocky laugh: “I think of myself more as a song and dance man!” Clearly, Dylan had grown weary of journalists and the labels that they heaped on him including “spokesman of a generation” and “conscience of this and the other movement”.
In No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, a 2005 documentary film by Martin Scorsese, Dylan looks back on the extreme pressure he came under from fans, activists and journalists fighting to own him, to categorise him, to link him with particular social and political causes. “I had no answers to any of those questions any more than any one else did! … The press thought performers had all the answers to society which is kind of absurd”.
Scorsese’s three-and-a-half-hour documentary covers Dylan’s childhood in Hibbing, Minnesota. It details his arrival in New York in January 1961 — a time when poets and singers shared impromptu stages in the the cafes of Greenwich Village. It focuses on Dylan’s fascination with the songs and style of Woody Guthrie. It also outlines Dylan’s affinity to blues; his concern with the craft of writing, his growth as a recording artist in the hands of adept producers at Columbia Records, his controversy-filled performances and his “retirement” from touring after a motorcycle accident in July 1966.
Between 1963 and 1966 Dylan’s appearances at the Newport Folk Festival grew increasingly controversial. His style was shifting from cover versions of mainstay folk anthems performed on an acoustic guitar and a harmonica secured around his neck, to improvisations of folksongs, plugged into an electric guitar and featuring his own elaborate lyrics about romance, religion, justice, political protest, fears over the atomic bomb and random musings about anything.
On August 28, 1963, Dylan attended the civil rights “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”. Not long before that, he had experienced discrimination first-hand when he was denied a hotel room on account of his appearance and his obscurity. Joan Baez, who had by that time achieved national success as a folk singer, stepped in and secured a room for Dylan. He spent the rest of that night writing The Hour When the Ship Comes In.
That was the song that he and Baez performed for the “March on Washington”, building up the crowd’s demand for change. The chorus had the same protest message as ‘Blowin in the Wind’. Dylan never attended another civil rights march. But by that time, in Baez’s view, Dylan had “provided the biggest song in our anti-war, civil rights arsenal”.
Some of Dylan’s songs started off as 10 or 20-page rants. He had the patience to weave these outpourings into tight lyrical verses. Elijah Wald examines one such song — Like a Rolling Stone — and the evening of July 25, 1965, when Dylan performed it. In Wald’s recently released book — Dylan Goes Electric!: Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night That Split the Sixties — that performance is seen as a defining moment in 20th Century music.
Dylan’s work has generated unending conversations between artists. For instance, in response to Blowin in the Wind, Sam Cooke recorded A Change Is Gonna Come — the song made famous by Tracey Chapman.
Someone once said that “poetry is words that you recognise as subjective truth that has some objective reality about it”. The strength of this definition strikes you the moment you hear the affirmation of civil rights in the words: “How many roads must a man walk through before you call him a man? … The answer my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.” Because winds signify change.
Dylan is credited with writing 522 songs. Does that tally plus his transformation of folk music make him the most dynamic songwriter of his generation and, therefore, the most deserving in this new frontier of literature? Sadly, for Bob Marley and Tabu Ley acolytes, there are no posthumous Nobel prizes, but is there hope for the lyrical sophistication of Smokey Robinson or Adele?
These questions invite a debate on comparative songwriting. It is a debate that I must save for another day since the Swedish Academy is already convinced that Dylan achieved artistic excellence with “outstanding work in an ideal direction”.
In 1974, Dylan started touring again. He was performing his “Never Ending Tour” in Las Vegas last Thursday when he was named Nobel Laureate. The 75-year old Dylan, whose birth name is Robert Allen Zimmerman, is the father of six children from two marriages. Hopefully, they will all urge him to break his silence, contact the Swedish Academy soon and show up in Stockholm on December 10 to receive his award.
This weekend, if you can’t get hold of Chronicles Part One, Dylan’s 2004 autobiography, spend some listening to his songs. You can start with my essential Bob Dylan playlist: Mr. Tambourine Man; Forever Young; Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door; Tangled up in Blue; The Times They are a-Changing; Like a Rolling Stone and finally, Blowin’ in the Wind. The Peter, Paul and Mary version, please.