John Lennon’s Imagine, and Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ In the Wind are both songs that – when the music is stripped away – reveal themselves as powerful poems. They have both stood the test of time, asking the heavy questions of what it means to be a human society, and both offering us the same fundamental invitation: let’s consider changing the ways in which we have chosen to live, ways less harmful and more peaceful, ways that discourage hate and separation, and encourage love and union.
With Blowin’ In the Wind being written in 1962 and Imagine in 1971, both songs are super-charged with countercultural ideas, calling out war, religion, and injustice on all fronts: social, political, racial, personal, and spiritual. In Blowin’ Dylan essentially asks us, through a series of symbolic and metaphorical questions, what it will take for us to change our behavior, our beliefs and values, our way of thinking. More specifically, how much more death in the name of greed and power will it take for us to wake up from our collective ignorance and see the truth and consequences of how we have chosen to operate as a society here in the western world?
In Imagine Lennon offers up the same basic idea, albeit a basic idea heavily clothed in layers of complication. Rather than forming it as a series of questions, though, he frames it as more of an invitation, essentially proposing this: imagine how things could be in our human world, instead of how they are. It’s clear that his proposal of how things could be, is also his personal belief of how things should be: peace instead of war, love instead of hate, “a brotherhood of man”. He prompts us with some light symbolism, but his words are more direct than they are symbolic, asking us to imagine no heaven or hell, no countries or religion, no possessions, greed or hunger. (The song remains controversial to this day, due to the line “and no religion too”, thought of by many religious groups as quite a daring proposal, and a threat to their respective belief systems.)
“Imagine there’s no countries,” Lennon says, “it isn’t hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for / and no religion too / imagine all the people / living life in peace.” In other words, think of a world in which there are no divisions of any kind. No politics, no geographical borders, no organized religion, no economic class. A world in which all these things are replaced by union and equality. It makes me think of looking first at an image of Earth from close-up, where you can see the borders of all the countries that have been established by the human race, and then panning the camera out until you’re viewing Earth from space, like you see in so many pictures. Once you pull back and look at it from a distance, there are no visible divisions other than that of land and water. You just see a planet, and you start to get more of a sense of oneness.
Lennon then goes on to acknowledge the skepticism and doubt you may be feeling with the line “you may say I’m a dreamer / but I’m not the only one”. Finally, he invites us to join him, and hopes that we eventually will: “I hope someday you’ll join us / and the world will live as one”.
Dylan’s Blowin’ In the Wind relies much more on the use of symbolism in the form of questioning, but points to the same theme of hope for ‘a better world’. However, there seems to me to be a major difference of mood here, for while Lennon asks us to imagine a better world and hopes we will join him someday, Dylan bittersweetly tells the reader “the answer is blowin’ in the wind”. With this powerful image, Dylan implies that it’s unknown if anything will actually ever change for the better, and if so, who knows when. One could also interpret it to mean that the answer is obvious, everywhere, all around us.
To me, the poem is essentially a manifesto or declaration of this sentiment: when will enough be enough? “How many times must the cannonballs fly / before they’re forever banned,” Dylan asks. “How many deaths will it take till he knows / that too many people have died?” In other words, when will it ever be enough? “How many times must a man look up / before he can really see the sky?” Dylan is poking at the issue of mankind never waking up to the fact that it’s killing itself through greed, fear, hate and blame. How – even as we come to understand more about our history – we tend to continue repeating history on one level or another.
The image of the rising and falling of an empire, or a belief, can also be interpreted from the line “how many years can a mountain exist / before it’s washed to the sea.” Dylan’s images are simple but the symbolic power they wield through contemplation is immense.
Blowin’ In the Wind is most-often described as an anthem of the civil rights movement, and a war-protest song, in particular protesting U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War at the time Dylan wrote it. In June 1962, the song was published in Sing Out!, accompanied by Dylan’s comments:
“There ain’t too much I can say about this song except that the answer is blowing in the wind. It ain’t in no book or movie or TV show or discussion group. Man, it’s in the wind — and it’s blowing in the wind. Too many of these hip people are telling me where the answer is but oh I won’t believe that. I still say it’s in the wind and just like a restless piece of paper it’s got to come down some … But the only trouble is that no one picks up the answer when it comes down so not too many people get to see and know … and then it flies away. I still say that some of the biggest criminals are those that turn their heads away when they see wrong and know it’s wrong. I’m only 21 years old and I know that there’s been too many wars … You people over 21, you’re older and smarter.”
In 1975, the song was included in a Sri Lankan high-school English textbook, causing controversy because it replaced Shakespeare’s work with Dylan’s.
Lennon’s Imagine was first released in 1971, and topped the charts after his murder in 1980. It’s one of the most-performed songs of the twentieth century, and is widely considered one of the greatest songs of all time. Like Blowin’ In the Wind, it bridges the gap between poetry and song, language and lyrics, art and education, pop culture and counterculture, philosophy and psychology. It is currently being covered by music stars via Instagram in response to the COVID-19 worldwide pandemic.
The power of both of these poems put to music, lies in the use of language as a means to point to larger truths about what it means to be human, and the commonality of people that transcends all systems of class, race, politics, religion, the unique ability of humans to recognize and change their own behaviors, and – perhaps most important of all – the danger and power of belief.