Interdisciplinary Lesson: “Blowin’ in the Wind”

Essential Question

How does the song “Blowin’ in the Wind” use poetic devices to communicate an open-ended yet powerful message about the human condition, without ever losing its historical specificity?

Overview

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.


Time:

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.​

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Objectives

Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • How the lyrics to “Blowin’ in the Wind” employ poetic language and can be interpreted in multiple ways
    • The political and social climate of the early 1960s, including the Civil Rights movement and United States’s escalating tensions with the Soviet Union
  2. Be able to (skills):
    • Identify and interpret symbolic language within the lyrics of a song
    • Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings (Common Core State Standard: Language 5)

Activities

Procedure:

1. Play an audio clip of Bob Dylan performing “Blowin' in the Wind.” Explain to the students that it is a song he wrote and first performed in New York City in 1962. To generate classroom discussion, ask the students how the song and its recording compare to the pop music of today.

2. Distribute a handout of the lyrics to “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Invite one student to read the lyrics aloud.

Ask the students: How would you describe the message or mood of this song? [Answers may include: the singer sounds like he’s addressing a particular group, the singer is posing provocative questions to the listener, the mood is straight-forward or somber, etc. You may also want to discuss the simple instrumentation and how that affects the delivery.]

3. Read the following quote from Bob Dylan to the class: “I consider myself a poet first and a musician second.” Ask students:

  • What do you think is the difference between a poem and a song? A poet and a songwriter?
  • With those answers in mind, what do you think Bob Dylan is getting at in describing himself and his music in this way? [Answers may include: A songwriter sets lyrics to music, while a poet sets words upon the page. Songs may have a clear rhyming structure and repetitive verses, while poems may not. Dylan may be trying to assert that he takes his words, or his lyrics, very seriously, etc.]

4. Direct students to the song lyric, “How many years can a mountain exist before it is washed to the sea?” As a class, discuss the image of the “mountain”: Consider the “mountain” the lyrics are referencing. Within the context of the song, do you think this a literal mountain, or is the mountain a symbol for something different? Have students defend their answers.

5. Break students into small groups. Distribute to each group a handout featuring a timeline of the early 1960s. Have groups read through the timeline before referring back to the lyrics to “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Ask students to discuss the social and political issues that were prominent around the time Bob Dylan composed “Blowin’ in the Wind.” How might these issues connect to the song lyrics?

6. Read aloud the following lyric to your students: “How many ears must one man have, before he can hear people cry? / Yes and how many deaths will it take ‘til he knows, that too many people have died?” Using the timeline as a reference, groups should discuss the following question:

  • What is one issue or event on the timeline that these lyrics may have symbolized to listeners of “Blowin’ in the Wind” in the early 1960s, and why? [Note to teacher: answers may include one specific event, or broader themes such as segregation, injustice, the threat of war, etc.]
  • Invite groups to share out their responses. Ask the class: Why do you think different groups were able to come up with different interpretations of the lyrics?

7. Discuss as a class: If you were to perform a cover of “Blowin’ in the Wind” today, what are some current social issues, or events in our community, to which the song might apply? Write suggestions and generate a list on the board.

8. Have individual students pick an issue from the list. In a one-paragraph response, students should explain specifically how the issue they have selected may be applied to lyrics from “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

9. Play through the song together as a class. Invite students to share how their interpretation of the song has changed since the start of the lesson.

Standards

Common Core State Standards

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading (K-12)

  • Reading 4: Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.
  • Reading 6: Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening (K-12)

  • Speaking and Listening 1: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language (K-12)

  • Language 4: Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases by using context clues, analyzing meaningful word parts, and consulting general and specialized reference materials, as appropriate.

Social Studies – National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • Theme 1: Culture
  • Theme 2: Time, Continuity, and Change
  • Theme 4: Individual Development and Identity
  • Theme 5: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
  • Theme 6: Power, Authority, and Governance
  • Theme 9: Global Connections

National Standards for Music Education

Core Music Standard: Responding

  • Select: Choose music appropriate for a specific purpose or context.
  • Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
  • Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators' and/or performers' expressive intent.
  • Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.

Core Music Standard: Connecting

  • Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.