Well, it’s Monday again, the start of another work week. I think it’s a bit unfair that we’ve made the day that we named after the moon—arguably our most unique and interesting and certainly among the most important of nearby astronomical bodies—into a day that’s associated with the return to drudgery after a minor respite.
But that’s not what I mean to write about today. I’ve been thinking recently about a list I saw of “Greatest Songs of All Time”. I think it was one of those “WatchMojo” or “WhatCulture” lists, but that doesn’t matter much. What matters to me is, what had this list declared to be the greatest song of all time? Well, the answer, my friend, was Blowin’ in the Wind.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with the song. It’s a simple folk tune, pleasant and catchy enough for what it is. But the greatest? Musically, it’s not terribly interesting. It has only three chords, which change in not terribly imaginative or impressive ways, and the tune itself is also not especially beautiful or catchy. It just repeats its structure 3 times in a row. That’s all fine, don’t get me wrong, but…surely it can’t be because of the tune and the chords that they think it’s the greatest song of all time.
It must be the words. After all, the person who wrote this song was recently given a Nobel Prize for his words (all of them, not just this song), so they must be the reason some people consider this the greatest song of all time. Presumably the Nobel Committee doesn’t give those awards out just for any old lyric writing. They haven’t given one to Paul McCartney or Bernie Taupin or (God forbid) Tim Rice.
So, Mr. Dylan—if that is your real name*—let’s examine the lyrics of this supposedly greatest not just of your songs, but of all songs.
With the first line, I already have problems: “How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man?”
It’s internally contradictory. If a man is walking down any road at all, as the lyric says, you’re already calling him a man. If the starting point is “a man walking down a road” then he doesn’t need to be a man walking down a road at all before you call him a man. For a man to walk down a road, he has to be already a man.
Then comes the line “How many seas must a white dove sail before she sleeps in the sand?”
This one just doesn’t make sense. Do white doves sail? Aren’t doves land birds? Does any bird, other than a pirate’s parrot or similar, actually “sail” at all? Do white doves tend to sleep in the sand? I thought most dove species nested well above the ground. Or is this “sleep” a reference to dying? In which case, maybe a white dove will die if it tries to sail—since they aren’t sea birds—and so it will die at once, and the answer is “one or fewer”.
Next comes “How many times must the cannonballs fly before they’re forever banned?”
Well, I don’t think you need to ban cannonballs. They’re a long-since obsolete form of military projectile. What good would “banning” them “forever” do? Cannonballs are easy enough to make, but again, they are obsolete.
Well, this one I’m willing to accept as a catch-all term referring to all military weapons, but surely banning will not be the way war is ended, since “banning” something requires an implicit threat of force in and of itself. Surely only by advancing as a civilization to the point where war is no longer in any sense desirable by anyone is the way things will go, if it goes that way at all.
Next comes the title verse, “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. The answer is blowin’ in the wind.”
Now this is clearly just an evocative image (so to speak) showing that the answer is not something that can be grasped, calling to mind poetic queries such as “Who has seen the wind?” But ever since I were a wee lad, I’ve heard this and thought, “So, maybe the answer is ‘a leaf’.” Which doesn’t quite make sense, but a leaf is the sort of thing that can be found blowing in the wind. Or we could go “meta” or whatever, and say, “The answer is, ‘dust’. Dust in the Wind is the answer.” And for my money, it’s a much deeper, more evocative, more haunting, and far more beautiful song.
But that’s a digression.
Now, the first lyric of the second verse is one I frequently forget, because it’s partly banal and partly misses any point. The whole “How many years can a mountain exist before it’s washed to the sea?” is a bit of trivia, and it would differ for every mountain. Also, I would think that not every mountain is, in the end, washed to the sea. I don’t really think that’s how geology and plate tectonics work.
As for the third line of the verse, “How many times can a man turn his head and pretend he just doesn’t see?” it’s basically an empirical and uninteresting question***; I suppose one could run a test on a statistically significant number of men and have them turn their heads over and over again, pretending not to see, until they get fed up with the process, or fall asleep, or develop some form of repetitive stress injury, then publish the result with error bars and significance estimates, but why would anyone do such a thing?
The middle line sticks in my craw in a worse way, for moral philosophical reasons: “How many years can some people exist before they’re allowed to be free?”
Well, if freedom is something that people are “allowed” then they aren’t free at all. They are being given a privilege, not claiming a right. Freedom is something that is demanded, that is seized, that is declared. It is not given nor taken away—ethically, anyway—at the whim of other people.
It is certainly questionable, as a matter of physics, whether anything like “freedom” actually exists, but from a civilizational point of view, if you think you have a right to “freedom”, you don’t ask to be allowed to be free, you insist upon it, and—if it’s important enough to you—you put your life on the line to seize it.
Then comes the little chorus again.
Now for the last verse, which starts, “How many times must a man look up before he can see the sky?”
Well, honestly, we don’t have enough information to answer that question. If the man is in a closed, windowless room, then it doesn’t matter how many times he looks up. He’s not going to see the sky. On the other hand, if he’s in the basket of a high-flying balloon, for instance, or in a plane, he may not need to look up at all to see the sky. But if he is outdoors, and it’s not cloudy (unless clouds count as “the sky”) then he only has to look up once to see the sky.
The next line is “How many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry?”
The most straightforward answer is, “At least one.” I would be willing to include in this definition of “ear” anything that transduces sound into decipherable neural impulses reaching the appropriate brain centers for interpretation, including those amazing new devices that have allowed previously deaf people to hear for the first time. When those are turned on, and you see the recipients’ reactions, anyone with half a soul can’t help but cry. That’s poetry in real life.
But it’s orthogonal to my point.
Next comes perhaps the silliest line, to me: “How many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died?”
There are a lot of assumptions made in asking this question, such as the notion that death is inherently bad in and of itself. If that’s so, then we’re all hosed, because as far as we know, every human born will die someday, somehow. As far as we can tell, the universe itself will eventually reach some stage of “heat death” with the development of maximal entropy and no free energy, where there will no longer be any arrow of time. But in any case, every human will die eventually, that much is effectively certain.
So, how many is too many? I suppose if the last mating pair of humans alive in the world die, leaving the human race extinct, then “too many” people would have died…from the human point of view, anyway. Maybe to other creatures on the planet this would entail “just the right number of deaths”.
This line is part of a general attitude toward which I have antipathy. It is not death per se that is the evil. It is premature death, and death that causes or entails unnecessary suffering. Suffering is the real tragedy, not death. Everyone who is born will die. If not—far worse—they’re eventually going to find themselves floating in a featureless, timeless haze at just-above-absolute-zero, and they’re going to be alone there until the next Poincaré recurrence, estimated to be on the order of 10120 billion years, if such a thing even happens at all.
That doesn’t sound fun. Why not just be content to die and then come back whenever the laws of physics accidentally recreate you, somewhere****, which is going to be more likely to happen sooner than the whole universe recurring, not that you’ll experience the intervening time. That’s all assuming that the laws of physics don’t contain bigger surprises than anyone expects, which they probably do.
This should all be enough to show my irritation with the notion that Blowin’ In the Wind might be the best song ever. It’s obviously memorable, of course, and it made me think—but only in the sense of thinking of the ways that it’s awkwardly worded or ham-handedly metaphorical. All Along the Watchtower is a better song, in my opinion. Even The Times They Are A-Changin’ is a little better. Or The Man in the Long Black Coat!
Then again, I’ve written a lot of words picking apart this one, simple song, with a simple chord and verse structure, with many lines that could be considered what Dan Dennett calls “deepities”—words that sound profound, but which are fairly banal and even trivial or nonsensical when you look at them closely.
But I did stop and look at them and pick them apart and think about what they could mean if they were slightly better worded, and they made me think about possibly better questions to be asked.
Maybe it’s a pretty great song after all. Who would’ve thought it?
*That’s a joke. I know it’s not his real name. His real name is Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov**.
**That’s a joke within a joke. It’s not actually Bob Dylan’s real name. Anyway, as far as I’m concerned, Dylan is Dylan, just as Muhammed Ali—another famous poet—was Muhammed Ali.
***Though I know it’s really a rhetorical question referring to people’s ability to ignore injustice, and I don’t actually have any issues with it as such. So I apologize for being picky about this line.
****Possibly as a so-called Boltzmann Brain, which frankly doesn’t sound appealing.