“This here ain’t no protest song or anything like that, ’cause I don’t write no protest songs.” That was how Bob Dylan introduced one of the most eloquent protest songs ever written when he first performed it publicly. It was the spring of his first full year in New York City, and he was onstage at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village, talking about a song he claims to have written in just 10 minutes: “Blowin’ In The Wind.” A few weeks later, on July 9, 1962, Dylan walked into a studio and recorded the song that would make him a star.
Dylan’s recording of “Blowin’ In The Wind” would first be released nearly a full year later, on his breakthrough album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. This was not the version of the song that most people would first hear, however. That honor went to the cover version by Peter, Paul and Mary—a version that not only became a smash hit on the pop charts, but also transformed what Dylan would later call “just another song” into the unofficial anthem of the civil rights movement.
“Blowin’ In The Wind” bore little or no resemblance to the highly topical, highly literal protest songs of the day, but that may have been precisely what made it so effective as a protest song. A lyric like “How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man?” lends itself perfectly to those seeking racial justice, just as “How many seas must a white dove sail, before she sleeps in the sand?” does to those seeking peace. The moving, vaguely spiritual, clearly dissatisfied, yet ultimately ambiguous nature of “Blowin’ In the Wind” made it the quintessential protest song of the 1960s—”A song that the times seemed to call forth,” in the words of critic Greil Marcus.
It also represented a significant breakthrough for Bob Dylan as a songwriter. From “Blowin’ In The Wind” onward, Dylan’s songs would reflect a far more personal and poetic approach to self-expression—an approach that would lead him away from songs like “The Times They Are a-Changin'” and toward songs like “Like A Rolling Stone.” And Dylan’s development as a songwriter would, in turn, have a similar effect on The Beatles, whose own move from “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” to “A Day In The Life” can be traced directly to their exposure to The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in the spring of 1964.