August 30, 1966
“Blowin’ in the Wind” by Stevie Wonder
#1 on the Billboard Hot Rhythm and Blues Singles chart, August 27 – September 2, 1966
Bob Dylan was 20 years old the first time he performed “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the song that would make his name, at a club in Greenwich Village. The song’s origins, however, stretched back a century before his birth, hundreds of miles away. “No More Auction Block for Me” was the refrain of former slaves who had been forced from Africa to the Caribbean to England, before finally choosing Canada as their home.
The song looks ahead to a future of freedom, while also recalling the strictures of slavery and the “many thousand gone” who never escaped captivity. Decades after slavery ended in the Western world, “No More Auction Block” unfortunately remained relevant. The auction block may have vanished, but other humiliations and cruelties ensured that the descendants of former slaves would struggle for rights equal to those held by the descendants of former slave owners.
In the mid-20th Century, “No More Auction Block” was a fixture in the repertoire of civil rights musical icons like Paul Robeson and Odetta. In a modified form, it became “We Shall Overcome,” the anthem of the Civil Rights movement. It was with this history in mind that Dylan adapted the tune into “Blowin’ in the Wind,” a song that also reflected on the enduring struggle for equality. “How many years can some people exist,” he asks, “before they’re allowed to be free?” The archaic melody and the elliptical lyrics made the hit 1963 cover by Peter, Paul & Mary appeal to listeners who might have shrunk from a more politically strident missive. After all, not too many protest songs manage to top the Easy Listening charts for five weeks.
Peter, Paul & Mary were the first artists to make the Top 10 with a Bob Dylan song; three years later, Stevie Wonder became the first black artist to accomplish the same feat, with the very same song, which he also took to the top of the R&B charts.
Wonder was 16 years old when he released his version of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” only four years younger than Dylan had been when he wrote the song. Wonder had lived long enough to understand firsthand the unfair treatment of the black man in America, but he was also young enough to not just believe in the possibility of change, but to expect it as a given. You can hear it in his version of the song, which ups the tempo slightly and adds a shuffling bass and blues piano.
Wonder’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” has none of the mystery of the original; instead, his straightforward vocals and the song’s cut-to-the-chase arrangement transform Dylan’s abstract rhetorical questions into self-evident statements of fact. Wonder’s version alludes neither to the song’s roots as a folk tune or a spiritual; instead, appropriately enough, it sounds like a product of Motown, the label which helped turn “black music” into American music.
At the time of the song’s release, Wonder had not yet established a reputation for political consciousness. He was a teenager who had survived child prodigyhood to forge his own identity, away from being a baby Ray Charles and a bongo-playing novelty act. Earlier in 1966, Wonder had successfully mounted a comeback with “Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” whose Rolling Stones-derived beat demonstrated his eagerness to test the conventional borders between black and white music. “Blowin’ in the Wind” further extended his genre-spanning explorations, which would fully develop on his series of classic ’70s albums.
Those records would also show Wonder as a thoughtful social commentator, one who typically framed his politics within an optimistic, inspirational message. Fittingly, then, Wonder’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” isn’t a mystical, poetic lament about injustice, but a matter-of-fact declaration of empowerment. The fight for equal rights was still very much needed in 1966, but Wonder could feel the winds of change blowing strong, decisive, and inevitable.
It Was 50 Years Ago Today examines a song, album, movie, or book that was #1 on the charts exactly half a century ago.