All the Lies That Are My Life: Bob Dylan, Lorre Wyatt and “Blowin’ in the Wind”
It’s windy, spitting snow, and just above freezing the night of Monday, April 16, 1962 in New York City’s West Village. Joan Baez jumps into a cab parked at 11 West 4th Street and starts babbling to the driver about a song she just heard.
Joanie: “You wouldn’t believe this. I mean, this is amazing. This is real poetry.”
Cabbie: “Does it rhyme?”
Earlier that day, two aspiring musicians are hanging at the Fat Black Pussycat, a dimly-lit Greenwich Village coffee house in the era when it meant something to be a dimly-lit Village coffee house, as the New York Times puts it on the occasion of the Pussycat’s demise.
The two musicians are Jewish boys who have changed their names to better fit into the folkie scene. One has just turned 22, one is still a month shy of that birthday. The Pussycat is pretty much a dive, “a cesspool” its future owner would call it, where “you could barely see anybody because of the smoke, and you couldn’t talk to anybody because half of the people you wanted to talk to wanted to sell you narcotics.”
Funky or not, the Pussycat is a legit Village venue. Tiny Tim performed there, as did Mama Cass Elliot, Richie Havens, Shel Silverstein and Bill Cosby. But in the afternoons, like this cold April afternoon, the Pussycat is a quiet joint where hipsters and beats can linger over a cup of coffee indefinitely without getting bugged, man.
A Song is Born
See, here’s two of them right there, drinking coffee and bullshitting. The tangle-haired kid pulls out a pad and pencil and commences to strumming on his guitar, alternating between chords and jotting down words. “Hey man, play the tune for me while I get the rhymes down,” he tells the other boy as he hands over his guitar, “It’s ‘No More Auction Block’.”
You wouldn’t be a folkie in 1962 if you didn’t know the old spiritual, and David Blue runs through the music while Bob Dylan puts the finishing touches on his lyrics.
With two verses completed to Dylan’s satisfaction, he and Blue head over to Gerde’s Folk City, where the weekly Hoot Night is underway. As usual for a Monday, Gerde’s basement is packed with musicians hoping to get on the performer’s list, all trying to get the attention of the holder to the keys to the stage, Gil Turner, a folksinger and impresario who has emceeing duties on Hoot Night.
Dylan was friendly with Turner, had a crush on Delores Dixon, the lead singer in Turner’s group, the New World Singers, and liked to sit in on their late sets at Gerde’s, where Dixon sang “No More Auction Block” in closing each night.
“I got something you should hear man,” Dylan tells Turner and runs through the song as Turner listens intently. “I’ve got to do that song myself,” Turner says. “Right now!”
Dylan shows him the chords and Gil runs through the words, taking a copy of the lyrics that Dylan scrawls out for him and hustles to the stage. “Ladies and gentlemen,’’ he says. “I’d like to sing a new song by one of our great songwriters. It’s hot off the pencil and here it goes.”
Gil Turner launches into the first live performance of “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
David Blue ended his story with the entire audience standing on its feet and cheering while Dylan watched in delight. And then they both go home.
But Dylan would actually end up singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” himself that night. Apparently getting a dispensation from Gil Turner to break the strict “three songs and you’re off” rule of Hoot Night, Dylan would play another of his originals, “Talkin’ New York,” three traditional songs, and then “Blowin’” as the capstone to his own set.
Ears That Just Couldn’t Hear
Not everyone immediately recognized “Blowin’” as the monster folk song it would become. Dave Van Ronk, known as the “Mayor of MacDougal Street” to the Village folkie crowd, buttonholed Dylan the next day to tell him, “Jesus, Bobby, what an incredibly dumb song! I mean what the hell is blowing in the wind?” Van Ronk would occasionally poke fun at “Blowin’” with the lyrics,
“How much wood could a woodchuck chuck
if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind.’”
Dylan’s sometimes girlfriend, Delores Dixon, felt that that the word “Blowin’” was not grammatically correct and didn’t want to sing it. She changed the phrase to “Blown in the Wind,” and that’s how it was recorded by the New World Singers. “Bob didn’t seem to care,” recalled Happy Traum. “He really liked Delores.”
Albert Grossman, who had formed, managed, and occasionally produced Peter, Paul & Mary and who would later sign on as Dylan’s manager, thought “Blowin’” was at best a B-side, and pushed to have his group record “Don’t Think Twice” instead.
Happily, they didn’t and Peter, Paul & Mary’s cover of “Blowin’,” released as a single in June 1963, sold 300,000 copies in its first week. It would chart to #2 with a bullet on Billboard, spawn hundreds of other covers, and make the song a standard in every folkies’ repertoire. Dylan, who was basically still a New York folk scene phenom in 1962, would be invited to the Newport Folk Festival the following year, perform “Blowin’ in the Wind” accompanied by Peter, Paul & Mary, and establish himself as a major folk force.
By then the rumors about “Blowin’” had started.
“Here’s a song written by one of the Millburnaires!”
“There is even a rumor circulating that Dylan did not write ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ that it was written by a Millburn (N.J.) High student named Lorre Wyatt, who sold it to the singer. Dylan says he did write the song and Wyatt denies authorship, but several Millburn students claim they heard the song from Wyatt before Dylan ever sang it.” ~ Newsweek, November 1963
Millburn, New Jersey is about a 30-minute train ride from Greenwich Village and home to Millburn High School, which among its other extra-curricular activities sponsors the Millburnaires, an a capella group using a rotating cast of student singers.
In September 1962, a Millburn High senior and aspiring singer/songwriter named Lorre Wyatt is delighted to hear that he’s passed the audition and is now a member of the Millburnaires, 1962–63 edition. Wyatt, who is deeply immersed in folk music, really, really wants to bring a folkie song of his own to the Millburnaires, not least because their advisor has an in with RCA and there is talk of the Millburnaires releasing an album.
Looking through the October/November Sing Out! Magazine for inspiration, Wyatt finds Dylan’s “Blowin’” in one of its earliest publications (not the earliest, which will become an important part of the story). In the best folkie tradition, the kid tries to adapt “Blowin’” into his own song. By the time of the Millburnaires’ next rehearsal, Wyatt has two versions of “Blowin’” in his pocket, Dylan’s and the song Wyatt is still working on, which he doesn’t think much of in comparison with the original. He makes a decision that would haunt him for the next decade as someone asks, “Anybody got a song?”
Wyatt plays Dylan’s “Blowin’” to stunned silence. “Did you write that?” someone finally asks. “What harm could it do?” Wyatt thinks, and at that point, as he sits on a beige-colored rug in a living room in Millburn New Jersey, Lorre Wyatt’s life descends into madness.
Madness: “We can do it for Thanksgiving Assembly!”
Wyatt: “No! It’s not finished!”
Madness: “We gotta!”
Backstage for the Thanksgiving Assembly, Wyatt implores the other Millburnaires not to say anything about the song, just sing it.
Madness to the assembled crowd: “Here’s a song written by one of the Millburnaires!”
After overhearing him vow that he’ll never have anything to do with the song again, Wyatt is invited for a “little chat” with his home room teacher who is curious about what’s going on. Because the poor kid is only 17 years old and wishes he were dead by this point, he spins a story that he had sold the rights to the song for $1,000 and gave the money to charity. “Gave it where?” the teacher asks, and Wyatt blurts out the first rhyme that comes into his head, “C.A.R.E.!”
Wyatt’s 1973 self-confessional for New Times magazine ends at that point in the story, though madness had yet to finish with him.
In 1963, The Millburnaires self-publish an LP, A Time to Sing, which includes the song and attributes it to Lorre Wyatt as well as including liner notes on how it came to be. That same year, the album is picked up by a sub-label of Riverside and re-released under the name “Teenage Hootenanny.” The song leads the album, even though it’s misspelled as “Blowing in the Wind,” but is no longer credited to Wyatt — in fact, is not credited to anyone.
An article in the Millburn High school newspaper, The Miller, repeats the story of how Wyatt wrote the song in the summer of `62, sold the song to Bob Dylan for $1,000, and donated the proceeds to C.A.R.E.
Two months later, The Miller produces another article noting that The Chad Mitchell Trio had picked up the song for their latest album, “In Action.” The enterprising high school reporter apparently contacted a publicist at the Trio’s label, who is quoted as saying, “…Lorre has created a beautiful ballad.” However, when “In Action” is released, the only song with a credit is “Blowin’” and that credit is to Bob Dylan. The song becomes so popular thanks to the Peter, Paul & Mary version that when “In Action” is reprinted eight months later, the album title has been changed to “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
There’s a story that the Chad Mitchell Trio lost the opportunity to release a single of “Blowin’ in the Wind” in 1962 because their then-producer turned it down with the explanation that “no song with ‘death’ in it has ever made it into the top 50.” If the Trio weren’t the very first to release “Blowin’,” they were definitely among the first. “In Action” was released in January 1963, as was the Trio’s single of “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Authorship was correctly attributed to Bob Dylan on both album and single, although, shades of The Millburnaires “Teenage Hootenanny,” the single’s title is misspelled again as “Blowing.”
Whatever a record label said, many of Wyatt’s classmates were convinced that he wrote the song and had made the bad decision to sell all rights to that song. An interview with one proponent of the “Wyatt as ‘Blowin’ author,” argued, “…one of the contingencies of the buyout was that Wyatt was not ever to claim the song was his. But everyone knew he had written the song.”
The rumor continued to float from the New Jersey high school to Greenwich Village coffee houses, but never picked up that much traction and would have probably died a natural death… except for a little magazine called Newsweek.
“My past is so complicated you wouldn’t believe it, man”
Given his penchant for telling whoppers, young Bob Dylan had been lucky in his dealings with the press, mostly because “the press” for Dylan up to that point had been friendly publicists or people more interested in the young man’s talent than whether he had really traveled with a carnival or hoboed around the West. But by November 1963, “Blowin’” was a monster hit, Dylan was doing concerts at Carnegie Hall, and he had attracted the attention of the mainstream media.
Dylan seems to have righteously pissed off an anonymous Newsweek reporter, who in a November 1963 article critiqued everything from Dylan’s grooming to “his deliberately atrocious grammar, punctuated with obscenities,” to the fact that almost everything out of Dylan’s mouth when he wasn’t singing was a lie, capped with the revelation that Bob Dylan who claimed to be from parts unknown was actually Bobby Zimmerman from Hibbing.
It was a classic journalistic hatchet job, all designed to show Dylan as a phony, including a mention of the rumor that “Blowin’ in the Wind” had really been written by Lorre Wyatt.
According to Dylan biographer Anthony Scaduto, “Dylan and [manager Albert] Grossman had it coming to them. As had happened to so many others before him, the writer for Newsweek had been promised Dylan’s cooperation in an interview, but then at the last moment either Dylan or Grossman (there are several versions but most credit Grossman) told the writer there would be no interview. The writer then went out to Minneapolis and Hibbing and dug up Dylan’s background. On his return he threatened to publish all the gossip, and Grossman backed down and set up an interview. It was brief: Dylan became nasty and broke it off, and the hatchet job was printed.”
Dylan went into a several-week funk over the Newsweek article, and was still feeling the sting some 49 years later. In a 2012 interview with Rolling Stone, in answer to a relatively innocent question about “the controversy over your quotations in your songs from the works of other writers,” Dylan exploded,
“People have tried to stop me every inch of the way. They’ve always had bad stuff to say about me. Newsweek magazine lit the fuse way back when. Newsweek printed that some kid from New Jersey wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind” and it wasn’t me at all. And when that didn’t fly, people accused me of stealing the melody from a 16th-century Protestant hymn. And when that didn’t work, they said they made a mistake and it was really an old Negro spiritual. So what’s so different? It’s gone on for so long I might not be able to live without it now. Fuck ’em. I’ll see them all in their graves.”
If anything, the article became one the first building blocks of the Dylan re-invention myth with a young Jewish kid from Minnesota transmogrifying into a Woody Guthrie clone to dominate the New York folkie scene. Dylan as punk electric rocker, Dylan as laid-back country boy, Dylan as Christian evangelist, and many, many more Dylans were to follow.
Thanks to the Newsweek article and the wonders of the Internet, the “Blowin’ in the Wind” rumor seems to have a half-life equal to radium, even with Lorre Wyatt’s repeated disclaimers and overwhelming evidence that Bob Dylan unquestionably wrote the song. A month after first playing “Blowin’” at Gerde’s Folk City, Dylan added another lyric to the song and published it in Broadside magazine in May 1962, and later in the October/November issue of Sing Out! where Lorre Wyatt would discover it, to his regret.
Dylan recorded “Blowin’ in the Wind” on July 9, 1962 for his second album, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” released in May 1963. A month later, Peter, Paul & Mary’s cover would make the song an enormous hit.
“My therapist listened in amazement as I unraveled the tale of how I picked, by chance, the song that was to become the crowning expression of the ‘we shall overcome era’. She remarked supportively, ‘Well…at least you had good taste…”
Lorre Wyatt became a popular performer on the folk circuit as well as collaborator and co-performer with Peter Seeger. Although slowed down by a stroke suffered in the mid `90s, Wyatt continues to perform.
Bob Dylan would go on to become Bob Dylan’s greatest invention.
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