Person: Bob Dylan
Born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota, Bob Dylan is revered by many as one of the most influential figures in Folk and Rock. He is often credited with establishing a new understanding of the “singer-songwriter,” combining poetic lyricism with a sometimes confessional, sometimes enigmatic, and often compelling delivery.
In the mid-1950s, Bob Dylan was a teenager when Rock and Roll broke onto the American musical scene. He and his high school band, the Golden Chords, were avid fans of early Rock and Roll and would cover songs by artists like Little Richard and Elvis Presley. However, by the time Dylan graduated high school, his early musical influences had been eclipsed by an obsession with Folk singer Woody Guthrie. Unlike Rock and Roll combos, Guthrie performed solo on guitar and at times lived an itinerant lifestyle, travelling the country and singing his songs. Furthermore, much of Guthrie’s music had a clear social and political message. Dylan would follow Guthrie’s path, eventually moving to New York City to immerse himself in the Greenwich Village Folk music scene. It was while living there, surrounded by artists and in a politically-charged 1960s climate, that in 1962 Dylan wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
Dylan’s early socially-conscious songs, which in addition to “Blowin’ in the Wind” include “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” and others, were enmeshed with the 1960s antiwar and Civil Rights movements. In 1963, he was one of the artists invited to perform at the historic March on Washington, taking the stage along with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Though in the mid-1960s Dylan’s work began to shift away from social activist issues, his early works are an expression of the desire for social and political change that distinguished 60s youth culture.
Place: New York City
The Greenwich Village neighborhood in New York City is widely considered one of America’s centers of bohemian culture. In the decades before Bob Dylan’s 1961 arrival in New York City, the “Village” was a gathering place for artists. Beat Generation writers such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac frequented — and sometimes wrote about — life in the Village. Clubs including Cafe Wha?, the Gaslight Cafe, and Gerde’s Folk City served as venues for up-and-coming Folk artists, including Joan Baez, Dave Van Ronk, and Peter, Paul, and Mary, who would take their turns on the stages playing both traditional songs and, in some cases, original material. Bob Dylan had moved to the city in 1961 to follow in the footsteps of his musical role model, Woody Guthrie. Dylan even went to visit Guthrie’s family home in Coney Island, along with visiting Guthrie himself (who had been confined to a hospital in New Jersey by that time). In New York City, Dylan wasted no time trying to become a part of the Village Folk scene. In fact, it was at Gerde’s Folk City, in the spring of 1962, when a still relatively-unknown Bob Dylan walked onto the stage to perform a song he had recently written called “Blowin’ in the Wind.” He went on to record the song at Columbia Records the following year.
The lyrics to “Blowin’ in the Wind” are structured as a series of open-ended questions. The song asks, “How many years can some people exist, before they’re allowed to be free?” Providing no clear answers, the questions alone command attention and encourage reflection. Looking at the time period in which “Blowin’ in the Wind” was written can help us place the song’s open-ended questions in context. With the U.S. embroiled in struggles surrounding both Civil Rights and escalating tensions with the Soviet Union, Dylan’s song had particular resonance.
- FEBRUARY 1960: LUNCH COUNTER SIT-IN IN GREENSBORO, NC — Four college students stage a lunch counter sit-in at the Woolworth’s department store in Greensboro, N.C. to protest segregation in cafes and restaurants. This sparked a wave of other sit-ins in college towns across the South. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC (pronounced “snick”), was created.
- JANUARY 1961: BOB DYLAN ARRIVES IN NEW YORK CITY — At 19 years old, Bob Dylan arrives in New York City. One of the first things he does is visit Cafe Wha? in Greenwich Village to try and secure a gig.
- MAY 1961: FREEDOM RIDERS TRAVEL TO THE AMERICAN SOUTH — An integrated group of protesters begin their trip riding buses throughout the South to test new court orders that outlaw segregation on interstate public buses. Non-violent black and white riders are beaten by mobs in several cities.
- OCTOBER 1961: RUSSIANS TEST HYDROGEN BOMB — Tsar Bomba, the largest nuclear weapon to ever be detonated, is exploded in the Arctic Ocean, north of Russia. Cold War tensions between the Soviet Union and the U.S., both armed with nuclear weapons, escalate heavily.
- AUGUST 1963: MARCH ON WASHINGTON – Several hundred thousand Americans participate in the historic Civil Rights march, featuring Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Musical acts also perform throughout the day, including Bob Dylan. That same month, Dylan releases a recording of “Blowin’ in the Wind.” The song establishes him as a powerful singer-songwriter capable of penning and performing his own material.