Blowin’ in the Wind? I think not.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the song Blowin’ in the Wind.

Like many millions of people, when I first heard it I was moved; and I appreciated the depth and meaning in every line, every question posed by the author, each one pertaining to a fact of human history consistently revealing itself for each new generation.

I couldn’t help but be a little disheartened by the fact that these questions are still so relevant, so many years later.

Yet in the years following my first encounter with the song—for all it’s undeniable eloquence and power—the chorus still struck me as frustratingly flat.

To ask questions like “How many years can some people exist before they’re allowed to be free?” only to say that the answer is blowin’ in the wind, felt a little bit cheap, as though each of us might as well throw up our hands and just say ‘oh well.’

It was the only thing about the song that bugged me.  However, lately I’ve been looking at it differently.

Bob Dylan w/shades and hat, Copyright © by Daniel Kramer

Maybe I’m just slow and people have been hip to it all long, or maybe I’m taking shots in the dark and totally inserting my own meaning into the song, but that chorus means far more to me now than it did before.

What I think now is that if it feels underwhelming and flat to the listener, then that’s a good thing, because it should feel underwhelming and unsatisfying.

The song was never about spoon-feeding us the answers to age-old questions anymore than it was pointing its finger at any one group of people.  If it’s pointing its finger at anybody, then it’s doing so at everybody.

The real subject of scrutiny isn’t any one country or group or individual, but something deeper and typically more silent, something to which all of us are vulnerable.

Apathy. The very thing that bothered me about the song might actually be the main point of the song in the first place.

The answer, actually, is not blowing in the wind. If it is, it’s only because we’ve given into the same apathy, hopelessness, bitterness and fear that convinces people to throw up their hands and give up right from the start, and leave it to some unseen force outside of their control.

In the last verse, Dylan writes “How many times must a man look up before he can see the sky?”

There could be a lot of ways to interpret that line, but for me, it’s the one time throughout the song in which the author winks at us, as if to undermine that seemingly disappointing chorus.

As far as we know, there is only a sky above us, and it seems to care little if at all about the affairs of men and women. It will provide no answer to our problems, beyond the possibility of serving as a mirror. One that allows us to recognize that the answer to these questions is in our hands. It always has been and always will be.

To me, that’s a timeless truth. Elemental as the wind.

Portraits of American Music: Robert Johnson

Editors Note: In the spirit of honoring Black voices, we here at Quinby & Co. wanted to launch an ongoing series in tribute to the giants of American Music, a strong majority of whom are Black.  Far from being mere adherence to the times or simply doing what is trending or currently in vogue, this is something that is both extremely important to us and something that is distinctly us

These artists are our heroes.  Their music is a gift to our country and to the world.  Furthermore, that music is a big part of who we are.  It has largely informed the culture of this magazine.  Without it, we would not be here.  In honoring these voices, we honor our roots and we honor ourselves. 

Before we continue please consider visiting this link to see how you can help in the fight for universal equality and justice.  Thank You.

This is part of an ongoing series, and though the soon-to-be-mentioned list does follow something of a ranking system, we will be covering each placeholder out of order. 

Thanks and Praises

Ren Michael

Lately I’ve been thinking about the greatest American musicians. A Mount Rushmore of those who’ve shaped the music and shifted the collective consciousness through their work.

On the one hand, I think any sort of ranking system is crude and just plain ol’ silly when it comes to music, or any kind of art. On the other hand, it’s also kind of fun once you’ve surrendered any lingering claim to objectivity.  The exercise is, at the very least, just a display of affection for the music and the people who’ve shaped it.

Why did I focus on American music? Well for one thing–besides the fact that I’m American–in my most humble opinion, American music is simply the greatest composed in the last 100 years.

Our English cousins across the pond would likely agree.  That so-called British Invasion was, after all, an influx of British musicians coming to America and playing rock n’ roll remixed with a heavy dose of delta and Chicago blues.

Anyway, the more I thought about it, the more inclined I was to go ahead and do it. It remains a fun thing to think about, something that made me happy to sketch out during these unusual times.

Alright so here we go. This is my Mt. Rushmore of American musicians.

1. Louis Armstrong
2. Frank Sinatra
3. Robert Johnson
4. Bob Dylan

Choosing those four was actually easier than I thought it’d be. What proved more difficult was deciding between Johnson and Dylan for the number three spot. Both were songwriters as well as musicians, which interestingly enough, applies to neither of the top two. Still, if this is a broader discussion of musicianship as opposed to songwriting, then I think more credit goes to Robert Johnson. His playing, his technical wizardry across the fretboard, continues to influence guitarists all over the world.

Robert Johnson-King of the Delta Blues Singers
King of the Delta Blues Singers by Robert Johnson; Compilation album released posthumously in 1961 by Columbia Records

Yet while this isn’t a discussion about songwriting alone, any artist’s ability to write lyrics ought to play a role in assessing and appreciating their work.  On that score, Johnson again surpasses pretty much every other composer in the blues. For me, the lyrics of ‘Love in Vain’ offer a sample of his poetic depth and economy.

I followed her to the station, with her suitcase in my hand
I followed her to the station, with her suitcase in my hand
It’s hard to tell, so hard to tell, when all your love’s in vain

When the train pulled into the station, I looked her in the eyes
When the train pulled into the station, I looked her in the eyes
I felt so sad, so lonesome, I couldn’t help but cry

When the train left the station, it had two lights on behind
When the train left the station, it had two lights on behind
The blue light was my baby, the red light was my mind

Robert Johnson, ‘Love in Vain’

I’ve always appreciated anyone’s ability to create anything with so little at their disposal, who reaffirm the creed that less is more and showcase the unfailing sophistication of simplicity. I think, in using what ultimately amounts to just six sentences, Johnson achieves that here; as he did in so many of his songs.

He also took a classic setting, one that’s been in more romantic dramas of both film and literature than I can count–a train station where two lovers are saying goodbye–and evokes the core emotional dilemma with subtlety and grace, stripping away melodrama.

As a result, the song stands the test of time.  It could have been written yesterday, or any other day.  And the hero’s conflict is universally relatable.

It’s just one mark of superb artistry, one of many that makes Robert Johnson the father of the blues and by extension, rock n’ roll.

Robert Johnson
One of two known photographs of Robert Johnson

And still, very little is known about him.  Only two photographs remain in which we can even be sure it’s him.  Robert Johnson was born in Mississippi in 1911, and started playing in local juke joints at an early age.   According to friends and acquaintances–whose accounts form the majority of what we know about him at all, aside from the music–Johnson demonstrated enthusiasm for playing but only moderate ability and showmanship.

Then he disappeared for about a month before returning doing things on the guitar that nobody had ever seen.  The remarkable change sparked rumors which eventually birthed the now-popular legend that he sold his soul to the devil, down at the Mississippi crossroads, in exchange for mastery of the guitar.

Not long after, he recorded songs over the period of a couple days in San Antonio, songs which today seem painfully few in number, a precious selection that would ultimately cement his legacy.

The recordings reached the ear of John Hammond at Columbia Records in New York.  Eager to book Johnson for an upcoming bill at Carnegie Hall, he sent word down south to find him, only to discover that Johnson had died just weeks before.  The story was that he’d been poisoned by a jealous husband, who’d discovered that Johnson was having an affair with his wife.  He was 27 years old.

Robert Johnson
Second known photo of Robert Johnson

When it comes to the legend surround his life, it’s important to not get carried away particularly regarding the devil at the crossroads.  Myths have and likely always will lend meaning and vibrancy to our lives, often acting as roadmaps in navigating deeper universal truths.

But if we treat them as gospel, then–in this case for example–they diminish the virtues of practice and dedication to craft.  Indulging the image of Johnson being aided by a supernatural force comes at the expense of recognizing a man of natural ability and instinct, who put in the time to become who he wanted to be, or at least get a little closer to it.

What remains the most enduring fact of Robert Johnson’s legacy lies in those recordings.  There is very little production involved.  Listening to them, you get the feeling that he might have just walked in, cut them real quick in the span of a few hours, and then left, going about his business with little to no expectation of what might come of it.

Like many recordings of that early era, you can still hear the grainy, scratchy sounds of what is still a new medium, one through which America, for the first time in it’s history, is beginning to hear itself.  You can hear a young man, playing his music.  Little did he know that one day, his music would change the world.

Have a listen, friends.  We recommend playing it early in the morning, maybe with your first cup of coffee.  Or maybe at night if there’s a full moon or if you’ve got a nice view of the stars.

I often look up when I hear the music, and I consider a life on earth cut short, but a spirit that endures in some form or another like those stars in the far reaches of space, assuming their own rightful place among the grand tapestry of the cosmos.

We hope you join us in raising a glass to a profoundly gifted artist, and a true national treasure.  Robert Johnson.