In 1963, the most famous folk trio this side of Kingston released a cover of an young upstart singer-songwriter, successfully raising both of their profiles when it climbed into the upper reaches of the Billboard Hot 100.
Written by Bob Dylan, “Blowin’ in the Wind” was released as the second single from his sophomore LP, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, arriving on the heels of “Mixed-Up Confusion,” but it actually led off the album, thereby giving the song optimal placement to be quickly discovered by anyone who might’ve picked up the record. It was only three weeks after Dylan’s album was released that Peter, Paul & Mary had their version of the song on record store shelves, and you might reasonably wonder how they managed to hear, cover, record, and release the song in such rapid fashion.
Well, here’s one reason: like Dylan, they shared a manager - an entrepreneur named Albert Grossman.
Just as a sidebar, however, it’s worth mentioning that Dylan’s profile was already high enough at this point that people were paying intense attention to his work. Consider this the best possible proof: he first recorded “Blowin’ in the Wind” on July 9, 1962, and before the month was over, it had already been covered by Bobby Darin, who recorded a version on July 30 for Golden Folk Hits, an album which featured up-and-coming musicians James Burton, Glen Campbell, Roger McGuinn, and Phil Ochs on guitar and vocals.
Folk-rock fans, we hereby give your heads permission to explode.
What’s funniest about Peter, Paul & Mary covering the song, however, is that they actually weren’t the first trio to cover it: the Chad Mitchell Trio laid down their version of the track first, but when their label delayed the release of their album, ostensibly because the song included the word “death,” PP&M got the jump...and they also got the hit...and when we say “hit,” we’re not kidding.
In the first week of its release, Peter, Paul & Mary’s version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” sold 300,000 copies, making its way to a chart high of No. 2 on Aug. 17, 1963, having by that point sold more than a million copies. In Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan, Peter Yarrow revealed that he’d told Dylan that he’d make more than $5,000 from the publishing rights to the song - which, to put it in perspective, would be somewhere around $42,000 today - and that Dylan was speechless. Granted, Dylan’s always been a man of few words anyway, but in this case, speechlessness was certainly warranted.
Just one more interesting sidebar about Dylan’s first television performance of the song, which took place during his appearance on a U.K. program called Madhouse on Castle Street. One of Dylan’s co-stars during that production was an actor who would go on to become famous for his work in a veritable plethora of films in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, including The Omen, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze, and Titanic: David Warner.
“They’ve called [that production] the number one lost video or whatever to be discovered, because people really want to see it,” Warner recalled in an interview with The A.V. Club. “They brought him over to play this huge part in this TV play, and then he got here and said, ‘I’m not an actor! I can’t do this!’ And it was a huge part, so they split the part into two beatniks, and Bob just sat on the stairs of this house with his guitar, and I did all the talking. And then I would turn to him and say, ‘Sing, Bobby!’ A lot of the songs were written by the author of the play, and [Dylan] inserted a couple of his own songs. And the one over the closing credits was ‘Blowin’ In The Wind,’ and that was the first time it had ever been sung. And what’s even more amazing…It was on tape, and for budget reasons they used to recycle the tapes, but the amazing thing is that they didn’t wipe that tape for five years. By then, Dylan was one of the biggest things in the whole of the entertainment business…and they chose to wipe that tape reel.”
Good thing someone thought to record the audio...