A year before “Blowin’ in the Wind” would drift over a crowd of a quarter-million people gathered for the historic 1963 March on Washington, the New World Singers were in the basement of Gerde’s Folk City in New York, hastily trying to learn the freshly written tune.
Dylan gave the song to Gil Turner, the leader of the New World Singers, who also happened to be the editor of the Greenwich Village protest music zine Broadside — and, more important, the emcee of the weekly Hoot Night at Gerde’s, according to Jeff Place, the curator and senior archivist for Smithsonian Folkways.
“It was part of him building his reputation,” Place said of Dylan’s decision to share the song. Dylan had finished the lyrics on the same night that the New World Singers performed it.
Dylan reprised the song for his set later that night at Gerde’s but gave a disclaimer about its cerebral lyrics: “This here ain’t no protest song or anything like that, 'cause I don’t write no protest songs.”
The lyrics were published in Broadside, “a zine that people bought for 30 cents and would learn songs from to play around the Village,” Place told The Washington Post on Monday. “It was a song that blew a lot of people away in the whole folk scene.”
“Blowin’ in the Wind” is among the roughly 600 songs in an expansive writing catalogue that Dylan sold to Universal Music Publishing Group in a blockbuster deal announced Monday.
The rumored nine-figure deal transfers ownership of every Dylan song from 1962 to UMPG but excludes any work that Dylan, 79, may create in the future.
UMPG Chairman Jody Gerson in a statement Monday said Dylan’s “cultural importance can’t be overstated,” calling the musician “one of the greatest songwriters of all time.”
Dylan built that reputation over decades, but it was jump-started with “Blowin’ in the Wind,” said Place.
“It really elevated him to this reputation as ‘the new Woody Guthrie,’ ” Place said. But in 1962, with only his debut record under his belt, Dylan’s reputation remained somewhat localized on the East Coast folk scene.
The Chad Mitchell Trio recorded a version early in 1963, but it wasn’t until the summer of that year when “Blowin’ in the Wind” — this time propelled by the honeyed harmonies of the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary — broke through to a massive audience.
The group’s manager, who also worked with Dylan, passed them a demo of the song, which they recorded as a follow-up to their hit “Puff (The Magic Dragon).”
Peter, Paul and Mary’s version quickly shot to the top of the Billboard Music Charts and peaked at No. 2, where the song’s introspective message stood in contrast to other radio hits at the time, like the Four Seasons’ “Candy Girl” and “Wipe Out” by the Surfaris.
A week after the song peaked on the charts, the group performed “Blowin’ in the Wind” in front of a quarter-million people who had gathered from around the United States on the Mall for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
The most iconic portion of the program would be Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which was preceded by performers including gospel artist Mahalia Jackson; folk singer Joan Baez; Peter, Paul and Mary; and Dylan (who performed his song “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” about the assassination of Medgar Evers).
As Peter, Paul and Mary crooned over gentle guitars, people in the crowd joined hands, raised them overhead and swayed to the lyrics.
Band member Mary Travers later told the Educational Radio Network that the group covered Dylan’s record “because the song speaks of caring. Of listening to one another.”
In a magazine interview a year earlier, Dylan offered little analysis of his song, saying the “answers” it alludes to “ain’t in no book or movie or TV show or discussion group. Man, it’s in the wind — and it’s blowing in the wind.”
The song would become an unofficial anthem of the 1960s civil rights movement and was a hit for many of the popular artists who covered it.
“Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez — these were palatable to a lot of mainstream America,” Place said. “Dylan might have been a little too edgy, and his voice might have put people off.”
Dylan’s version of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” released in May 1963, failed to chart — though he would score a No. 2 hit two years later with “Like a Rolling Stone.”
But while Dylan’s version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” is not the one most Americans played on their turntables, its appeal crossed over to influential Black artists of the civil rights era, and the song was recorded by Stevie Wonder, Sam Cooke, Lena Horne and the Staples Singers.
“If you go back to the early [years] when Dylan broke out … you didn’t have a whole lot of African Americans living in cities who were listening to Dylan records,” Place said. “'Blowin’ in the Wind’ was kind of different; not really many of his other songs from that era broke out and got covered by African American artists.”
“Blowin’ in the Wind” has endured to become perhaps the most-covered of Dylan’s songs, with more than 300 versions spanning the decades. It’s been sung by icons like Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton and featured in award-winning films like “Forrest Gump.” It’s also part of the body of work that helped Dylan earn a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012 and a Nobel Prize in literature in 2016.
Place said he was hard-pressed to think of another song that’s enjoyed the same legacy, and he puts it in the running to become an artifact of the 20th century that lives far into the future, even if Dylan’s name is uncoupled from the song.
“If you wrote a song that’s played 150 years from now, you’ve really done it,” Place said. “I think ['Blowin’ in the Wind'] has that potential.”