Thursday, October 13, 2011

Blowin' in the Wind by Bob Dylan, illus. by Jon J Muth

True story: I was born in the sixties, and my parents were . . . well, not exactly hippies, but let's say they weren't super far off. My dad opposed the war in Vietnam, as so many others did, and, um, may have mixed with radicals. As one does, I suppose, in uncertain times.

Anyhoo . . . it's no surprise that I knew all the lyrics to pretty much everything by Peter, Paul & Mary and, of course, "Blowin' in the Wind" by Bob Dylan, which got airplay, but also got plenty of play in sing-alongs involving campfires and/or candles, possibly incense, and men and women wearing kaftans. Look, if you were alive then, you know exactly what I'm talking about. If not, then picture something from Woodstock on a much smaller scale and you'll be close enough. I could sing along to "Blowin' in the Wind" since I knew all the words, even if I didn't really appreciate their meaning. I knew, however, that it was an anti-war song.

Flash forward to my teen years, when I learned to play guitar. One of the first songs I learned was "Blowin' in the Wind" - the chord changes were pretty easy, and hey, I already knew the tune and the words. The lyrics resonated differently then, since I could really take them in. There wasn't a major war raging at the time, but there had been talk during my senior year of the possibility of reinstituting the draft, and there was a lot of unpleasantness in the world; it was still the Cold War, and there were things afoot to do with Iran and Contras and the lyrics to the song pointed up the pointlessness of so much of it all. "How many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died?" Oh, the futility of it all.

Cut to the other day, when a copy of Blowin' in the Wind, a picture book forthcoming from Sterling Publishing in November of this year, arrived in my inbox. (Thank you, good folks of Sterling!) Sure, the words are the same as I've always known them to be, and I can listen to Dylan sing them on the CD that's lodged inside the front cover of the book - it's the original Bob Dylan recording, even. But this time, there's art that goes with it - and not just any art, but marvelous watercolors of Jon J. Muth, famous for Zen Shorts, The Three Questions, and his setting of Stone Soup.

The pictures provide a context and a narrative, as they ought to do in a good picture book. This one starts with one little boy holding a red ball, watching as a paper airplane flies by his window. It then moves to a pair of children with a red balloon, and eventually to a young girl with a guitar, each of whom have their own paper airplanes as well. After the end of the text comes "A Note from Artist Jon J Muth", in which he explains his own personal history with the song, and how he searched for a visual metaphor for young readers - an "answer" blowing in the wind. Says Muth:

The beauty of this song is that, while Dylan wrote it at a seminal moment, its sentiment is universal and timeless. just as each of the children in my illustrations has his or her own paper airplane, each of us knows what needs to be done in our worlds. The song speaks to a truth found in us all. When we approach life with an open and dedicated mind and heart, what do we experience? We learn that we are striving for the same things--love, honesty, justice. We find these are actions, not wishes or longings. Freedom and joy are not care-free. Escape from the burdens of life isn't freedom. Freedom is full of care for everything. That means we must be a part of what all people want for themselves and for humanity.

The doors of the heart will then be thrown open to wind from every direction. (Emphasis added.)
By the end of the book, all of the children we've seen end up playing together, thereby offering a hopeful counterpoint to the somewhat bleak lyrical ending of the book - that final question asking "how many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died?" In the foreground of that two-page spread is a pile of flags, draped over an obviously out-of-use cannon (there's a vine growing up it, and the red balloon has been tied to it), while the children play with the red ball a bit farther off. The final pages, when Dylan reminds us that "the answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind; the answer is blowin' in the wind" feature a fleet of paper airplanes being carried by the breeze, a lovely visual metaphor for what could happen if people worked in harmony.

At the very end of the book is an interesting addition - a note from Greil Marcus, a music historian, who explains what the world was like when Dylan wrote the song, and how the United States differed then from the way it is now (including, for example, the existence of segregation). Marcus continues by pointing out that the reason the song lives on (at least in his opinion) is because the questions it asks are Big Questions - "Why is the world the way it is? Why do we have war, cruelty, and hate? Will this ever change?" And because people who listen to the song can find themselves in there somewhere, or, as Marcus says "Yes. I am in that song. That song is about me, too." (Emphasis in original.)

I highly recommend this book for pretty much anyone and everyone, regardless of age, although that is based on my personal bias favoring the song and my massive appreciation for Muth's artwork. I must say, however, that it's a no-brainer as a potential gift for any Dylan fans you might know.

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1 comment:

Dhiraj said...

The artist, as he enters eighth decade of life, has been described aptly as “the Methuselah of righteous cool” but he has been much more, a master of disdain now, a bard of decay only to surprise as a voice of longing for romance later. The elderly statesman of music has collided with forms ranging from folk to glam rock and many in between and has left them richer, altered forever.