By Clark Hinckley, November 2005[The names of some of the players in this story have been changed]
In the heady days of the Internet bubble, the pundits liked to say that “the Internet changes everything.” Then the bubble burst, fortunes were lost, and entrepreneurs had to actually have a business plan in order to attract investors.
But the fact is we are still connected, and the Internet keeps growing. The guys at Google just bought a Boeing 767 wide body jet for their personal use – ostensibly so they can take 50 of their closest friends to Africa to build a school in some remote village. Some folks are still making mega-millions on the Internet. This thing has legs.
But that’s not what this story is about. This story is about Lorre Wyatt, Bob Dylan, and “Blowin’ In The Wind,” back when the Internet was only a gleam in Al Gore’s eye.
Let me be perfectly clear about this right up front: I have never met Lorre Wyatt. I have never spoken to him. I don’t know where he lives. I don’t even know if he is still alive. And I am quite certain he has never heard of me.
I heard of him circa 1972 from Gary Sneau. In those heady days, Gary was a student at the Harvard Law School and I was a student at the Harvard Business School. I don’t remember anything about our conversation, how the subject came up, or exactly what Gary said (more on this memory issue later). But I remember clearly what I considered the key facts of Gary’s story:
1) That Gary had a high school friend by the name of Lorre Wyatt;
2) That Lorre Wyatt, not Bob Dylan, had written the song “Blowin’ In The Wind” while a student at Millburn (NJ) High School;
3) That Lorre and his musical octet, the Millburnaires, had recorded an LP in high school which included Lorre’s song; and
4) That Lorre had sold the copyright of the song to Bob Dylan for $1,000 and donated the money to C.A.R.E.
I considered this one of the most amazing pieces of pop music trivia I had every heard. I mean, “Blowin’ In The Wind”! This was the anthem of our generation! And Bob Dylan was the flag carrier! I absolutely loved this story!
And this was not some idle rumor. Gary had grown up with Lorre Wyatt. They were friends. Gary had heard the Millburnaires sing “Blowin’ In The Wind”. He had seen the LP. And he was smart and had no reason to make up such a story.
Bob Dylan, on the other hand, had every reason to keep such a story quiet. This song launched his career. It made him a gazillion dollars. It was a huge hit for Peter, Paul and Mary. Joan Baez, Judy Collins, The Chad Mitchell Trio, Chet Atkins, Marlene Dietrich, Stevie Wonder, even Elvis Presley recorded it. Everybody recorded it. Everybody sang it. Everybody knew it. Without it the civil rights movement might never have gotten off the ground. And without the civil rights movement George Wallace might have been elected president. The whole history of America would have been different. “Blowin’ In The Wind” changed the world. Of course Bob Dylan wasn’t going to admit he didn’t write it!
And hey, Bob Dylan wasn’t even truthful about his own name. Even back in the Seventies every pop music trivia fan knew that Bob Dylan was really Robert Allen Zimmerman, born in Duluth, Minnesota, and a dropout of the University of Minnesota. Not exactly a great heritage for someone whose public persona was inextricably tied to Greenwich Village.
And then there was the fact that “Blowin’ In The Wind” was the best “Dylan” song for a long time – it had a tune, the words made sense, it was simple, it was short, anybody who knew three chords on a guitar could sing it. It was unlike every other Dylan song.
It all made sense when you thought about it. It was unlike every other Dylan song because it was a Lorre Wyatt song!
So the Lorre Wyatt story became a staple in my repertoire of amazing trivia. In fact, it was probably the only piece of amazing trivia I knew, and I used it regularly. But as the years passed, the memory of my original conversation with Gary Sneau faded as the memory of my telling the story grew. After a decade or so, I began to wonder about the facts of the story. Had I misunderstood? Had Gary created an elaborate, plausible, but fictitious story, just for the fun of it? He was, after all, a Harvard lawyer.
In the mid-Eighties I moved to Phoenix. Not long after moving, I discovered that an old acquaintance from my Boston days, Randy Peters, was living in Phoenix. And interestingly, Randy was a New Jersey native and boyhood friend of Gary Sneau. After a few months I dropped by Randy’s house in the evening to visit, to reminisce and, well, to see if I had been duped.
After a few minutes of conversation and catching up I found my opportunity. “
You know, years ago Gary Sneau told me a story about his friend, Lorre Wyatt…”
Randy cut me off before I could finish the sentence: “It’s true. Lorre wrote “Blowin’ In The Wind”. I have a copy of the LP on which the Millburnaires recorded it.”
So, it was true!
Peter, Paul and Mary released “Blowin’ In The Wind” as a single in the Spring of 1963. Just a few weeks later, on May 27, 1963, Dylan released his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, containing “Blowin’ In The Wind” as track #1. Within weeks Peter, Paul and Mary’s recording had reached #2 on the charts and Dylan was invited to perform the song with Peter, Paul and Mary at the Newport Folk Festival in July. Articles on Dylan appeared in Time and the New Yorker. The obscure Greenwich Village singer-songwriter had become a national icon. And all because of a song written by Lorre Wyatt from Millburn High School!
It was a wonderful piece of trivia. Whenever I told it, my audience expressed the same shock and amazement that I had felt when Gary Sneau had let me in on the secret. “Oh, it can’t be true!” they would exclaim. But hey, Randy Peters had the LP, tangible proof. The Millburnaires had recorded the song before Peter, Paul and Mary or Bob Dylan. And copyrights were bought and sold all the time. Who could deny it?
Still, over the course of another decade I began to wonder. Randy Peters had been moving into a new house when I visited him in Phoenix and didn’t know where his old Millburnaires LP was. He and Gary had gone to high school together. Was I the victim of an old prank started by a couple of high school friends? The facts seemed solid, but…
In the mid-Nineties I moved to Salt Lake City. In what Dylan might call a simple twist of fate, I bought a home on Harvard Avenue, just a few houses down from Robert and Kathryn Fowler. I had known the Fowlers in the early Seventies when they were newlyweds and Robert was a student at the Harvard Medical School. Robert had become a well-known cardiologist. Kathryn was the granddaughter of Harvey Fletcher, the inventor of stereophonic sound. Her uncle had been director of NASA. Another uncle was a U. S. Senator. She was as solid and reliable as anyone could be. She had not only her own reputation to protect, but the reputation of a nationally prominent family. And she had grown up in New Jersey, just a few miles from Millburn!
One evening at a neighborhood dinner, I made it a point to sit next to Kathryn. At an appropriate moment, I directed the conversation to her high school days in New Jersey. We talked about Gary Sneau. We talked about Randy Peters. Had she ever heard of Lorre Wyatt?
“I went to the Senior Prom with him! And yes, it’s true: he wrote ‘Blowin’ In The Wind.’”
Well, you can’t argue with that! “In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established.” I now had three witnesses: Gary Sneau, Randy Peters, Kathryn Fowler. And I am not enough of a believer in conspiracy theories to think for a moment that these old high school friends had created a four-decade conspiracy to deceive me. “Blowin’ In The Wind” was written by Lorre Wyatt – the best piece of pop music trivia ever!
Researching such a piece of trivia would be almost impossible for a novice like me. It would take days – perhaps weeks – of sorting through dusty records in the New York City Public Library and who knows where else to track down the details of Wind’s emergence on the American scene – when the copyright was filed, who filed it, when the lyrics were first published, when the Millburnaires’ recording was released. I was lucky. I had three eyewitnesses.
But the Internet changes everything. Now research is a snap for anyone. And as they said back in the Bubble days, if it isn’t on the Internet, it doesn’t exist. So just for fun I went looking for Lorre Wyatt and “Blowin’ In The Wind.” Here is the first thing I found:
‘Blowing in the Wind’
Freshmen Deny Dylan Wrote Song
by Archibald Elias, Princetonian Staff Writer
(From page 4 of the November 13, 1963 edition of The Daily Princetonian.)
November 13, 1963 — If Bob Dylan sings “Blowing in the Wind” at his midnight concert Saturday, two loud hisses may accompany the applause.
The noise, if any, will come from Stephen A. Oxman ’67 and Richard W. Erdman ’67, who contest Dylan’s claim that he wrote the hit parade favorite.
Dylan holds the copyright to the song, and by law at least is the man who wrote it.
Oxman and Erdman claim the real credit belongs to a former classmate of theirs, Lorre Wyatt.
Now at the University of Akron majoring in music, Wyatt headed the Millburnaires, the octet of Millburn (N.J.) High School, and wrote many of its numbers himself.
According to fellow members Oxman and Erdman, Wyatt wrote “Blowin’ In The Wind” early in September a year ago, and had it performed by the octet as early as Oct. 6.
Dylan did not secure his copyright until later in the fall, and his recording did not come out until winter.
Since then the song has been recorded by the Chad Mitchell Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary, but each group has paid Dylan royalties.
As Oxman understands it, Wyatt traveled to New York that November and sold the song outright to Dylan. The reported price was $1000, all of which Wyatt is said to have donated to CARE.
Wyatt has since denied the transaction in a recent “Newsweek” article, but Oxman pointed out that he could not claim credit legally if Dylan holds the copyright.
“Of course he denied authorship,” explained Oxman. “He’d get himself in trouble if he didn’t.”
Partial confirmation of Oxman’s story comes from Gabriel Chiodo, music director at Millburn High.
Chiodo reports that he heard the Millburniares sing “Blowing in the Wind” long before the Dylan version came out. On the other hand, Chiodo has no idea how Dylan and Wyatt stumbled on the same number before a recording was issued.
What none of the Millburn party can explain is the fact that Dylan knew a song entitled “Blowing in the Wind” as early as June 1962 — two months before Wyatt’s reported composition date.
New York’s ASCAP, an association for singers and composers, reports that Dylan registered a song of the same name in July, pending a copyright. What they or no one else seems to know is whether the two songs are the same.
Oxman does not want to hear the concert, but expects to go anyway because his date is a Dylan fan. Erdman would like to attend, in the hopes of confronting Dylan with his evidence.
Neither had bought tickets by 3 p.m. yesterday, however, when McCarter reported only 43 left.
Copyrights notwithstanding, Wyatt’s octet has recorded an LP album called “A Time to Sing,” which includes the song in question.
During the summer, the album was released on a national basis, this time under “Teenage Hootenanny.”
So here was the story in print! And with all the corroborating details: the $1,000 price, the donation to C.A.R.E. I love the Internet!
Still, the story in the Daily Princetonian raised some questions, so I kept clicking. The next thing I found was a story by a David Blue about Dylan composing “Blowin’ In The Wind”:
The night Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” was first heard by an audience [Apr 16, 1962], Dylan and I had been killing the latter part of a Monday afternoon drinking coffee [at the “Fat Black Pussycat“]…
About five o’clock, Bob pulled out his guitar and a paper and pencil. He began to strum some chords and fool with some lines he had written for a new song. Time passed and he asked me to play the guitar for him so he could figure out the rhymes with greater ease. We did this for an hour or so until he was satisfied. The song was “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
We decided to bring it over to Gil Turner who was hosting the Monday-night hoots at Gerde’s, and we arrived about nine thirty or ten. Gerde’s was packed with the regular Monday night jam of intense young folk singers and guitar pickers. We fought our way through the crowd down the stairs to the basement where you waited and practiced until your turn to play was called. It was a scene as usual.
Gil Turner finally took a break and came down to the basement to organize the next half of the show. Bob was nervous and he was doing his Chaplin shuffle as he caught Gil’s attention. “I got a song you should hear, man,” Bob said, grinning from ear to ear. ”Sure thing, Bob,” Gil said. He moved closer to hear better. A crowd sort of circled the two of them. Bob sang it out with great passion. When he finished there was silence all around. Gil Turner was stunned. “I’ve got to do that song myself,” he said. “Now!” “Sure, Gil, that’s great. You want to do it tonight?” “Yes,” said Turner, picking up his guitar, “teach it to me now.”
Bob showed him the chords and Gil roughly learned the words. He took the copy Bob made for him and went upstairs. We followed, excited by the magic that was beginning to spread. Gil mounted the stage and taped the words on to the mike stand. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “I’d like to sing a new song by one of our great songwriters. It’s hot off the pencil and here it goes.”
He sang the song, sometimes straining to read the words off the paper. When he was through, the entire audience stood on its feet and cheered. Bob was leaning against the bar near the back smiling and laughing. Mike Porco bought us a drink. Later in the evening Bob went home with Suze, and I split with some friends. Another moment in time ticked off.
(Quoted in Robbie Woliver, Hoot! A 25-Year History of the Greenwich Village Music Scene, New York, NY, 1986, pp. 83-84; addenda [in square brackets] by Manfred Helfert.)
Well, that’s hardly a credible story! Who the heck is David Blue, anyway? I tried Googling his name and found a David Blue who is a high-jump coach somewhere in the 604 area code and another who showed up as a write-in candidate in an election in Key West. Googling “david blue folk” finally gave me the right guy. He was a folkie in Greenwich Village in the Sixties. The liner note on his self-titled album begins with this description:
When David Blue came out in August 1966, folk-rock singer-songwriters with folk roots were scurrying to ride Bob Dylan’s coattails into the rock mainstream. For David Blue, however, it was not enough to be influenced by Dylan, or even to emulate Dylan. David Blue, from all the sonic and even visual evidence on his Elektra debut album, wanted to be Bob Dylan.
So he was simply a Bob Dylan wannabe, claiming that he helped write Dylan’s most famous song. Not a very credible source. I kept clicking.
Wikipedia, that wonderful source for information about everything, gave some great background on Dylan and “Blowin’ In The Wind”:
By the time his next record, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, was released in 1963 he had begun to make his name as both a singer and songwriter (at a time when the two were still typically plied as separate trades), specializing in protest songs, initially in the style of Guthrie and soon practically developing his own genre.
His most famous songs of the time are typified by “Blowin’ In The Wind“, its melody partially derived from the traditional slave song “No More Auction Block”, coupled with lyrics challenging the social and political status quo. In hindsight, the lyrics to some of these songs may appear unsophisticated (“How many times must the cannonballs fly before they are forever banned”), but compared to the largely anemic popular culture of the 1950s they were a breath of fresh air, and the songs caught and fueled the zeitgeist of the 1960s. “Blowin’ In The Wind” itself was widely recorded, an international hit for Peter, Paul and Mary, setting an enduring precedent for other artists to cover Dylan’s songs.
Staying with Wikipedia, I looked to see if they had an article on that “most famous song.” I typed “Blowin’ In The Wind” in the Wikipedia search box. It returned this:
It is a premier example of the protest song, posing as it does philosophical questions about peace, war, and freedom. Its popularity and timelessness can perhaps be attributed to the fact that while the song asks these questions, it does not refer specifically to any particular political event.
It has been covered by hundreds of artists. Just a few of the better-known acts who have done so are folk music trio Peter, Paul and Mary (who actually released their version – which lacks the Harmonica solos after each verse – a few months before Dylan); country guitar virtuoso Chet Atkins; folk chanteuse Judy Collins; soul singer Sam Cooke; blues belter Etta James; Marlene Dietrich; Elvis Presley; Stevie Wonder; Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, and was performed by Jenny in the award-winning movie Forrest Gump (sung by Joan Baez).
Dylan originally wrote and performed a two-verse version of the song; his first public performance of it, at Gerdes Folk City on April 16, 1962, was recorded and circulates among Dylan collectors. Shortly after this performance, he added the middle verse to the song. Some published versions of the lyrics reverse the order of the second and third verses, apparently because Dylan simply appended the middle verse to his original manuscript, rather than writing out a new copy with the verses in proper order.
Well, it is a pretty amazing song. Fourteenth on the list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time! Imagine how proud Lorre Wyatt must feel!
Then I read on:
Plagiarism allegation hoax
For years it was widely believed in Millburn, New Jersey that Dylan had stolen the song from a student at Millburn High School, where a student singing group, The Millburnaires, had performed the song at a concert in 1961, before Dylan first recorded it. The story went that the student had volunteered at nearby Greystone Psychiatric Hospital, where Dylan often went at that time to visit Woody Guthrie, and had performed it for patients while Dylan heard it. Or, it was said, the unsuspecting student had sold it to someone hired by Dylan for a pittance.
In spring 1962 he had intended to write a protest song of his own for the group to sing and went through issues of Sing Out!, a folk-music magazine that published music and lyrics to songs. In there he came across Dylan’s song, not yet recorded, and decided to use it as a model for an original song of his own.
He struggled to come up with anything, however, and when the time came for the group to prepare for the concert, he panicked and passed off Dylan’s song as his own. His fellow singers were quite impressed, and after what wound up being the song’s first public performance, wanted to make it part of their repertoire. So Wyatt had to fabricate the story about selling the song as an excuse to not perform it again, and when Dylan finally performed and recorded it a year later, his classmates, none the wiser, thought he had been the victim rather than the perpetrator of the copying.
Even after Wyatt came clean, the legend continued to be told and believed in Millburn for years.
In Millburn, and in Boston and Phoenix and Salt Lake City! Could it be true? Wikipedia included a link to Snopes.com, the urban legend site. Snopes, in turn, led me to the New Times magazine article. Here is the entire article, written by Lorre Wyatt and published in 1973:
In September of 1962, fall of my senior year, I auditioned for the Millburnaires, a perennial singing octet from Millburn High. Ecstatic over making it, I raced to my first rehearsal overflowing with song suggestions like “Dona, Dona” and “500 Miles.”
Several weeks later, I thumbed through the new issue of Sing Out! It was seeded with protest songs which rekindled my songwriting desires. The ideas of one song in particular had an unavoidable impact. They agitated my head, and I made valiant attempt to find my own words. I scribbled feverishly at my heavy blond desk, pressed by the upcoming Millburnaires rehearsal. But the printed words kept looking better and better, and I couldn’t resist trying to piece the tune together.
On October 28th, the eight of us were sitting around Don Larsen’s beige-carpeted living room swapping songs. In my pocket were two sets of words — the original and the song I had hoped would grow out of it. My mind seesawed nervously back and forth between them. Mine wasn’t finished and that song was so good. Maybe I could sing it and not say anything and they’d think I wrote it and be impressed. If they said, “Let’s sing that sometime,” that’d be OK. I’d finish my song by then, and they probably wouldn’t remember the original.
Someone said, “Anybody got a song?” My hands formed a shaky D chord, and a distant voice began, “How many roads . . .” Unexpected silence as I finished. WOW! “Where’d you get that? Did you write that?”
(Why not, I thought, nothing will ever come of it . . .)
Yes. A rush in my brain as the chasm between the simple and the horrible surreal complex evaporated. That moment my old life ended and a new one began.
“Hey, we gotta do that! . . . We could learn it for Thanksgiving!”
“No, no — we can’t — it’s not done yet!”
Thanksgiving assembly. The ONE time we would do the song. My strictest instructions to everyone were not to mention who wrote it, but Don circumvented that by saying, “Here’s a song written by one of the Millburnaires.” At the end of the assembly, people streamed backstage. Somewhere the answer slipped out. I became adamant that we would never sing the song again. My head was swirling.
Next Monday my homeroom teacher asked to see me after school for a “just between you and me” chat. She wondered why I didn’t want to sing that song anymore. I pulled out the answer that I had been toying with all weekend, and told her that I had sold it. But nothing would abate her curiosity. When she asked, “For how much?” I blurted out $1,000. Her surprise led me quickly to add that I had given it away, and “Where?” became C.A.R.E.
I’d begun to make Pinocchio look like he had a pug nose.
While Dylan was taking a flight to Italy to find Suze, I was taking a No. 70 bus to Newark to find his record. My initial reaction was relief! “Wind” wasn’t on it, and he sounded like a loser. Annoyance took over – “$2.79 for this?” I returned it to Bamburgers and told the clerk something was wrong with it. He listened to half a cut. “Yeah, I see what you mean.”
January, 1963. On the way to school, a friend jubilantly told me my song had been played on radio. I feigned nonchalance (while munching on my Adam’s apple) and told him I already knew. But the Chad Mitchell Trio single went nowhere. Whew!
Four more springs later, 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…”
“Where became CARE”? That’s the best you can do?! Well, at least it rhymes.
So there it is. Three decades down the drain.
What is to be learned from all this? Never trust a Harvard Law student? Beware who you go to the prom with? If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is?
Maybe the most useful lesson is that the pundits were right: the Internet changes everything.
But it’s been a fun thirty years.
A Blowin’ In The Wind Timeline
April 16, 1962 Bob Dylan performs Wind for the first time at Gerde’s in NYC, having written some of it that same evening.
July 1962 Dylan registers the name of the song with ASCAP pending a copyright.
October 1962 Sing Out! publishes the lyrics for Wind; Lorre Wyatt reads the lyrics.
October 28, 1962 Wyatt sings Wind for his friends, passing it off as his own composition.
November 1962 The Millburnaires perform Wind at the Millburn High School Thanksgiving assembly.
Spring 1963 Peter, Paul and Mary release Wind as a single.
April 1963 The Millburnaires release their LP, A Time To Sing, which includes Wind and attributes the song to Wyatt. It is re-released during the summer by Battle Records (BM 6126/BS 96126) under the title Teenage Hootenanny, but on this edition Wind is not attributed to any composer. (Note: The album also contains “Dona, Dona” and “500 Miles”).
May 27, 1963 Dylan releases The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan; Wind is the first track on the new album.
July 1963 Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary perform Wind at the Newport Folk Festival
November 4, 1963 Newsweek publishes a story on Dylan, suggesting that Wyatt had actually written Wind.
November 13, 1963 Dylan performs at Princeton; the Daily Princetonian prints claims that Wyatt had written Wind.
1973 Wyatt writes a story for New Times magazine describing how he claimed authorship for Wind.