Lives of the Great Songs: Blowin' this way and that: Blowin' in the Wind: It was a protest song, but not everyone seemed to notice. Jasper Rees traces the career of Bob Dylan's first classic

BOB DYLAN was not the first singer to perform 'Blowin' in the Wind'; nor has he ever had a hit with it. For a while there was doubt that he was even its author. The first of many cranks to dog Dylan's steps was a New Jersey economics teacher, who claimed that a pupil of his called Lorre Wyatt had penned the song at the age of 15, and that Dylan had bought it with a dollars 1,000 donation to charity. Wyatt soon admitted that Dylan's song resembled his own 'Freedom is Blowing in the Wind' in name only, then waited until 1974 before confessing that no such song ever existed.

No one denied the simple folk melody owed something to a spiritual entitled 'No More Auction Block for Me', but the words were Dylan's own, jotted down on 16 April 1962 in a Greenwich Village coffee house, the Commons. He tried the song out on fellow folkie Gil Turner, who was so blown over he included it in his set that night at Gerde's Folk City. With a lyric sheet on his mike stand, Turner became the first in a long line to pose that lilting litany of metaphorical questions starting with 'How many roads must a man walk down/Before you call him a man?'.

Riotous applause told Dylan, if he didn't know it already, that 'Blowin' in the Wind' was his first classic. The next day Dave van Ronk, who had been working the Village scene far longer, begged to differ. 'Jesus, Bobby,' he recalled telling him, 'what an incredibly dumb song] I mean, what the hell is blowing in the wind?' A few weeks later he had the answer. 'I was walking through Washington Square Park and heard a kid singing, 'How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood/The answer my friend is blowin' in the wind'. At that point I knew Bobby had a smash on his hands.'

Bob Spitz, one of Dylan's biographers, claims that 'Blowin' in the Wind' may be the only song from the 1960s that will be remembered a hundred years from now. If so, it will be because it was built to outlast its context. As the civil rights movement gathered pace, some sniped that this so-called protest song was too like the breeze of which it sings, an insubstantial offering which held back from actually saying anything. But this missed the point. 'Blowin' in the Wind' was Dylan's shot across the bows. Its very lack of polemic, its mere hint of ire, is what made it so popular - that, and a sweet tooth of a tune. It led a double life as an angry anthem and a pretty pop bauble. Anyone could render it - folk singers, country acts, gospel groups, cabaret chanteuses, beat combos, guitar heroes, orchestras, even the New Seekers - and practically everyone did.

Like many folk ditties that call for just a voice, a guitar and a passing acquaintance with three major chords, it could have been written yesterday, or some time in the first century. The lines 'How many times must cannonballs fly/Before they're forever banned?' may have voiced a modern concern at the nuclear threat, but you'd never guess from Dylan's antiquated imagery that hi- tech weapons had even been invented, let alone recently deployed on the island of Cuba.

'Cannonballs' is one of the song's tiny handful of polysyllables. Few songs that pack such a literary punch as 'Blowin' in the Wind' use so many short words. The three verses and their echoing refrain are a model of brevity. Couplets like 'How many deaths will it take till he knows/That too many people have died?' trip along with a fleet- footed simplicity that has a mesmerising power.

In May 1962, the lyrics were published in Broadside magazine. Dylan himself recorded the song on 9 July. Dry, deadpan, almost downhearted, his version would not just overshadow most others but leave them looking like a misreading. The treatment, like the song, was a case of less being more: just him, his acoustic guitar and his harmonica. It's verse, refrain, solo, verse, refrain, solo, verse, refrain, solo; no bridge, no middle eight, no climax. The solos are more like fills - brief, almost brusque. The vocal is done with the minimum of fuss, and no variation in dynamics: Dylan sings the nine questions as if they'd just occurred to him, with a casual 'Yes and' before the second and third one in each verse. He sounds not remotely uplifted. Amazing, when you listen to just about everybody following behind.

Even before Dylan gave his own version to posterity, the song had become a Village anthem: someone somewhere was performing it every night, and its popularity so dispirited Dylan that he considered leaving it off his second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. He relented, but only on the insistence of his veteran producer John Hammond who, after Dylan's critically reviled debut LP, needed something to justify his faith.

By this time the song was already famous, thanks to Albert Grossman, Dylan's manager, who farmed the song out to another of his clients, Peter, Paul and Mary. The smiley trio, fresh from a hit with 'Puff the Magic Dragon', took a honeyed version of the song into the upper echelons of the chart, adding harmonies, bolstering the instrumentation and passing the lead vocal around the group. It may have taken away a harsh edge but it persuaded a million people to buy the single. As Grossman calculated, the song opened doors for his protege to the rest of America.

By the end of 1964 the song had been recorded by a good 60 acts, from Joan Baez to Sam Cooke, Bobby Darin to Marlene Dietrich. It was open season on 'Blowin' in the Wind'.

Cooke's recording was a live one, made in 1964, the year he died. He did it as a chain-gang spiritual, with a chugging guitar, cheery horn section, chiming cymbals, and a beautiful, easy swing that paved the way for the song's rebirth as a feel-good R&B love tune. That's how it was done by the young Stevie Wonder, who in 1968 became the only act other than Peter, Paul and Mary to have a hit with it, and last year sang it at Columbia's 30th anniversary Dylan tribute at Madison Square Garden.

Dietrich was the exception to the rule that the lusher the instrumentation, the softer the punch. This was probably because she first recorded the song in German. As with 'Where Have All the Flowers Gone?', her first success with a protest song, Dietrich soon cut the song in English, but 'Die Antwort Weiss Ganz Allein Der Wind' is the stronger version. Her deep, haunted voice, backed by Burt Bacharach's jaunty orchestration, captured the song's weary resignation in a way that Bacharach's other muse, Dionne Warwick, was unable to match.

The young Marianne Faithfull recorded it in only her second stint in a studio, as a follow-up to 'As Tears Go By'. Hers is the only version with a fade-out, which doesn't come soon enough. It would be good to hear her do it now that her voice has, as it were, broken. She might wrench something apocalyptic out of the song as no one has yet managed, not even a direly howling six-minute version by Neil Young, captured for evermore on the festival-of-feedback live album, Weld.

The Hollies gave it the 'He Ain't Heavy' treatment, big, booming and hollow. The Brothers Four, and many others, turned it into a country thigh-slapper. Diana Ross and the Supremes, recording it in 1969, close to the end of their tether, reduced it to just another product on the Motown conveyor belt - a tinny, percussive version which did no justice to the lyrics. The Ray Conniff Singers turned it into lift muzak. But no one plumbed the depths quite like the New Seekers who, elaborating on the more restrained example of the Seekers, delivered a happy-clappy sing-along with a ghastly lead-guitar break.

For a song whose bite is in its lyrics, there is a surprising array of instrumental versions. Duke Ellington, Duane Eddy and Chet Atkins all came up with accounts of the melody that sound just as you'd expect them to. The London Philharmonic Orchestra, meanwhile, passed the parcel between the prettier instruments before letting a funereal choir in on the act. How many times must a song be sung, before its spell starts to wane?

If you'd like to hear 'Blowin' in the Wind', tune into Virgin 1215 between 9.30 and 10am today, when Graham Dene will be playing two of the versions discussed here. Virgin is on 1215 kHz MW (AM).

(Photograph omitted)

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