If you asked a cross-section of the public what the greatest song of the 20th century is, Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind may well average out as the favourite. It is one of those originals that sounds like a cover, like it’s been passed down from cornfield to schoolroom to coffeehouse over generations (and in one sense it was, with its melody inspired by a 19th century African American spiritual). Its perfection lies in the way meaning is written into the melody itself: each verse’s couplet turns wistfully upward to suggest a search for wisdom and peace might not be fruitless, but the doleful way the melody turns downward again for the title line leaves the impression we’ll never make it. Humanity’s curse is to know how cursed it is. Blowin’ in the Wind is brutal.
Particular lyrics need to be heeded now more than ever: “How many times must the cannonballs fly / before they’re for ever banned?” hits hard in the wake of a series of mass shootings in the US. Even more so the lines about the wilful ignorance of the legislature in the face of those killings: “How many ears must one man have / before he can hear people cry? / Yes, and how many deaths will it take til he knows / that too many people have died?”
The fact that Blowin’ in the Wind is so potent and universal, its power so regenerative, makes it all the more grotesque that a single copy of it has been minted and sold for £1.5m. For this sale at Christie’s auction house, Dylan rerecorded the song in the studio for the first time since its original take in 1962. The take was then etched into a lacquer-coated aluminium disc – only one will ever be made – and housed in a bespoke walnut and white oak cabinet with an etched titanium plaque.
This new format, Ionic Original, is the lobotomised brainchild of producer T Bone Burnett, Dylan’s supporting guitarist in the 1970s and later the man who helmed the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack among many other laudable projects. He hails the format as the “pinnacle of recorded sound” in terms of sound fidelity.
On one level, it is pure grift, similar to the proprietor of a hi-fi shop trying to flog you gold-plated cabling despite it offering no audible improvement on copper wire. Part of me thinks that if Burnett can hoodwink millionaires out of their wealth, more power to him. There will no doubt be further releases in the series and perhaps it will help fund some musical projects that might otherwise not have happened. But at a time when so many musicians struggle to make a living, and when wealth is increasingly unevenly distributed across the board, it feels insulting.
It is also the absurd pinnacle of vinyl fetishism. The market for vinyl has exploded again over the last 20 years as the intangibility of digital music has left people longing for something to hold. Labels like Jack White’s Third Man Records and reissue specialists Numero Group have made ever more lavish box sets and eye-catching releases – and I covet these as much as any record-loving dork. (My velvet-covered reissue of First Step Beyond by 70s satanic rockers Medusa? I have literally stroked it against my face.)
This market has helped to prop up artists, labels and record stores alike, but ratcheting prices (good luck finding a new release for less than £20) have meant that it is now largely the preserve of the most monied or determined fans: I don’t feel I can afford vinyl any more, and have stopped buying it. The Ionic Original format is the grotesque extremity of this malaise, and one which, in its high-profile financial success, deepens it.
More seriously still, the elitist endeavour runs counter to the very spirit of popular music. The cheapness and replicability of pop – which, ignoring its own financial inequalities for now, streaming takes to a frankly glorious scale – is what makes it such a defining cultural medium. To rerecord one of history’s greatest songs and let only one person hear it is a ghastly reversal of the very concept of “popular”.
Burnett may be trying to show respect for a major cultural artefact by framing it as a fine-art object, but in selling it via Christie’s he is using the corrupted value system of the art market, where an object’s monetary worth is often what gives it meaning to its buyer. And a song isn’t an artefact: it blows in the wind. To trap it in a single white oak box – the same hoarding instinct that has destabilised so much culture over the years – dishonours music itself.
Wu-Tang Clan did something similar with their 2015 album Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, its single copy sold to pharmaceutical chief Martin Shkreli for a reported $2m, and later sold for $4m to an NFT group after Shkreli was convicted of fraud and needed to pay off his debts. This was a gross spectacle in its own way, but the crucial difference was that no one had ever heard the album before. The single-album concept felt part of the lore of a group with its own mythology.
Blowin’ in the Wind, though, is a song about humanity itself: its cruelty, its potential, its dreadfully short lifespan. Yes, we can all carry on listening to the original whenever we like. But to have this new rendition packaged up as the fetish object of a millionaire is disgraceful – or, in the most generous interpretation, enhances the song’s point about how doomed to inequality we really are.
• This article was updated on 9 July to acknowledge the song’s roots in a 19th century African American spiritual.