Daniel Singer

Is ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ Like The Four Questions?

Every year at our Passover Seder, we look forward to having our kids sing “The Four Questions.” “Ma Nishtana halaila hazeh mikol haleilot..?” How is this night different from all other nights?

Much has been written about what these questions mean. It is often pointed out that these are not actually questions, but rather four answers to one question. The four questions are merely a starting point to provoke many more questions as part of the Maggid, the telling of the Passover story, which is intended to involve a lot of food, wine and conversation.

These four questions provoke us to ponder the meaning of four symbols of Passover that make the night special — the matzah, the maror, the dipping of parsley in salt water and bitter herbs into charoset, and why we lean when we eat. All of these foods are symbols that help us to remember our slavery in Egypt and what it means to be able to celebrate our holiday in freedom.

Bob Dylan’s questions in “Blowin’ in the Wind” seem to have a similar symbolic meaning and a direct connection to slavery in America. The melody he used for the song was an African American slave song dating back to the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, “No More Auction Block.” And the revival of this melody in the context of asking symbolic questions has caused much speculation. Like our Four Questions, Dylan’s questions have sparked more questions and conversation.

Dylan was always straightforward in insisting this was not a protest song. He introduced it saying, “This here ain’t no protest song or anything like that, ’cause I don’t write no protest songs.” If it isn’t a protest song, then what if it’s really a song much more like The Four Questions — one intended to help the youngest among us to ask the questions needed to help transmit our timeless struggle for liberation?

What about the symbols in the song? Are many of them not symbols that we share in common with our Exodus story? Walking down roads? Traversing seas? Escaping cannonballs? A mountain? A people? Looking to the sky for guidance? One who doesn’t see, one who doesn’t hear? The memory of so many who died in the struggle for freedom?

Does it matter when the song was written as a possible source of inspiration? Wouldn’t Dylan have been aware on April 16, 1962, writing the song down together with his friend David Cohen playing the chords on the guitar (who, just like Bob Zimmerman, changed his folk singer stage name to David Blue) that Passover was just two days away? In the context of the long political discussion that they engaged in with friends at The Commons, a Greenwich Village coffeehouse, which ended in silence, might the Passover concept of asking symbolic questions have inadvertently entered Dylan’s mind to inspire him write the song?

What if Dylan heard an answer in their silence? There are four children symbolized in the Passover seder — the wise one, the wicked one, the simple one, and the child who did not know how to ask. Dylan said to his friends, “The idea came to me that you were betrayed by your silence… All of us in America who didn’t speak out were betrayed by our silence.” Dylan seems to have seized an opportunity to ask questions that were, like the Four Questions, prompts to get people to start asking the questions. According to Dylan, the first thing is to get people to care enough to ask the questions. “The first way to answer these questions is by asking them. But lots of people have first to find the wind.”

Louis Kemp, in his book “Bob Dylan & Me: 50 Years of Adventures,” recalls a Passover Seder in the mid-70s. It was a gathering he covertly arranged with two of his friends, Marlon Brando and Bob Dylan, to attend a Seder with over 300 other people at a synagogue in Los Angeles. The rabbi recognized Brando and asked him to read the Haggadah, which he did in a very dramatic Shakespearian style to the amazement of the guests. Some time later, after getting a guitar, the rabbi asked Dylan if he would be willing to play a song.

Louis expected his friend to turn down the performance and remain silent. But to his surprise, Bob accepted the offer and sang a song for everyone. Of all the songs Dylan could have chosen to sing, he chose “Blowin’ in the Wind.” He never explained to his friend why he chose that song, but the answer is blowing in the wind…

Last year I decided to adapt The Four Questions to Dylan’s setting of Blowin’in the Wind, and it’s surprising how well the Hebrew lyrics track. The nice thing about singing these words to Dylan’s setting is that it allows everyone to sing the question as the refrain, something that has been a common complaint about the traditional melody.

I think Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” makes The Four Questions even more memorable and enjoyable, and I hope that finding new ways to ask these questions will encourage more youth to “find the wind” and ask the questions that tell our story.

About the Author
Daniel Singer is the cantor of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on New York City’s Upper West Side. Drawing on a wide-ranging knowledge of Jewish music, Cantor Singer is as comfortable singing an 18th-century classical liturgical repertoire or leading the congregation in traditional Hasidic or Sephardic melodies as he is performing Jewish pop acapella with SIX13 or singing roles with the Yiddish Theater or opera.