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You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

This phrase is famously used in Subterranean Homesick Blues by Bob Dylan. The metaphor itself is so simple and powerful I'm sure it would've been a proverb by now had we weather forecasts a couple of hundred years ago. Now imagine my surprise when I learned that Dylan apparently coined the phrase himself:

Most famously, its lyric "you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows" was the inspiration for the name of the American radical left group the Weathermen, a breakaway from the Students for a Democratic Society. In a 2007 study of legal opinions and briefs that found Bob Dylan was quoted by judges and lawyer more than any other songwriter, "you don't need a weatherman..." was distinguished as the line most often cited.

Does this mean that there is no factual evidence of this phrase being used prior to the song, or did he just make an existing phrase (more) popular?

I'm not trying to belittle Dylan's influence—just plain curious how far it extends in this case.

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    One should never be surprised if the answer to the question, “Who wrote that?” is Bob Dylan or Barry Gibb. Apr 16, 2020 at 22:19
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    You can go all the way back to the Gospel of John, chapter 3, verse 8 for a similar phrase: "The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit." Dylan may be paraphrasing the bold part (you can't tell where the wind blows). Ignatius, who died in AD117, was a student of John and familiar with this gospel, so the Gospel can be dated to the late AD90s.
    – Steve
    Feb 15, 2022 at 21:00

8 Answers 8

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The phrase know which way the wind blows is quite old. Even the sense of "knowing the direction of public opinion" dates from at least the early nineteenth century (see The Phrase Finder).

There is a slight association between that phrase and a "weatherman" that dates from at least the early twentieth century. There was a classroom activity called "Weathervane" to teach compass directions in which one person was designated "weatherman" and called out an arbitrary "direction of the wind" (description).

Beyond those facts, there seems to be little evidence that Dylan's lyric existed as a phrase before he set it down in the Sixties. (It's hard to prove a negative, of course.)

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Does this mean that there is no factual evidence of this phrase being used prior to the song, or did he just make an existing phrase (more) popular?

I can't say with complete certainty, but a Google Books search from 1700 to 1964, which was the year before the song was released, reveals only one occurrence of the phrase, which itself seems to be a reference to Bob Dylan (whether the author had a special preview to the song or Google Books recorded the publication date incorrectly, I don't know). That isn't definitive, but it is extremely unlikely the phrase was ever used before being written for the song.

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A character in the 1948 film noir Blonde Ice says: "You don't need a weather vane to know which way this wind is blowing."

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There is an old expression involving "which way the wind blows"—but according to "The Packet," in Porcupine's Gazette (March 1799), reprinted in William Cobbett, Porcupine's Works; Writings and Selections, Exhibiting a Faithful Picture of the United States of America (May 1801), it runs as follows:

The conduct of the American magistrates towards the British, and that towards the French, exhibit a very curious contrast. I myself have seen the crew of a French vessel parading the streets of Philadelphia with drawn swords ; I have seen them drive the people before them like sheep running from wolves ; I have seen them cut and slash the constables just as if they were so many of the army of an enemy ; and I have seen all this pass off with impunity. Never did the Sovereign People of Philadelphia complain of this ; never did they assemble in hundreds to seize hold of the Captain, and drag him before a magistrate. But, behold how the Sovereign's resentments broke out, and how diligent the magistrates and their subalterns were, the moment they heard that one of the British Packets had withheld a quarter of a dollar from a carman!—"Straws" (to make use of Callender's old hackneyed proverb) "Straws serve to show which way the wind blows." And these little indications of the Sovereign's sentiments, of his tame submission to France, and his Lynx-like watchfulness for occasions of venting his hatred against Great Britain, clearly prove that a patched up peace with the former power will very soon be followed by a war with the latter. Let the British Merchants and Manufacturers look to it!

Cobbett calls it an "old hackneyed proverb, and uses the expression in a figurative (and indeed explicitly political) sense. "Callender" seems to be James Callender, who published The Political Register; or, Proceedings in the Session of Congress, Commencing November 3d, 1794 and Ending March 3d, 1795 (1795) and The American Annual Register, or, Historical Memoirs of the United States for the Year 1796 (1797). Google Books does not offer readable versions of either of these text, however.

Other noteworthy eighteenth instances of figurative uses of "which way the wind blows" include a letter from Richard Spaight to Governor Martin of North Carolina, dated March 12, 1784, reprinted in The Colonial Records of North Carolina, volume 17 (1899):

With respect to the British Court we should I think be constantly on our guard, and impress strongly on our minds, that tho' it has made peace with us, it is not in truth reconciled either to us, or the loss of us ; but still flatters itself with hopes, that some change in the affairs of Europe, or some division among ourselves may afford them an opportunity o recovering their dominion, punishing those who have most offended, and securing our future dependence. It is easy to see by the general turn of the ministerial newspapers ; (light things indeed, as straws and feathers but like them they shew which way the wind blows) and by the malignant improvements their ministers make in the foreign Courts of every little accident or dissension among us; the riot of a few soldiers in Philadelphia, the resolves of some Town meetings, the reluctance to pay taxes, &c., &c., all which are exaggerated to represent our Governments as so many anarchies, of which the people themselves are weary, the Congress as having lost its influence being no longer respected ; I say it is easy to see from this conduct that they bear us no good will, and that they wish the reality of what they are pleased to imagine.

And from Joshua Reynolds, "Discourse, VII, Delivered to the Students of the Royal Academy, on the Distribution of the Prizes, December 10, 1776" in The Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1809):

It is in reality from the ornaments, that arts receive their peculiar character and complexion ; we may add, that in them we find the characteristical mark of a national taste ; as by throwing up a feather in the air, we know which way the wind blows, better than by a more heavy matter.

But figurative use of "know which way the wind blows" goes back almost a century earlier than these instances might suggest, as we see in this instance from Alexander Pope, "Historical Letters: Letter III" (October 26, 1688), reprinted in Mr. Pope's Literary Correspondence, volume 4, second edition (1736):

The too near neighbourhood of Holland has thrown our Administration into a violent Ague ; the hot Fit and the cold quickly succeed each other. Public Justice is in a fluctuating Condition, it depends on the Winds and the Weather, like the Rate of Insurance of Ships on their Voyages. By the Proceedings of the High-Commission-Court, we know which Way the Wind blows ; 'tis a mere Barometer, with this Difference from the common Experiment with Mercury, that the Credit and Power of that Court rise high with a Westerly Wind, or a Storm ; an Easterly Gale sinks them down to nothing.

And more than a century before that, in John Heywoode, A Dialogue Contenyng the Number of the Effectual Prouerbes in the English Tounge, Compact in a Matter Concernunge Two Maner of Marryages (1562), reprinted (with modernized spelling) in The Proverbs, Epigrams, and Miscellanies of John Heywood (1906):

When I saw your manner, my heart for woe molt; / Then would ye mend as the fletcher mends his bolt: / Or as sour ale mendeth in summer: I know / And knew, which way the wind blew, and will blow. / Though not to my profit, a prophet was I: / I prophesied this, too true a prophecy.

An early instance of not needing something to know which way the wind blows appears in a letter from Mrs. Thrale to Samuel Johnson, dated November 11, 1778, reprinted in Hester Piozzi, Letters to and from the Late Samuel Johnson, LL.D., volume 2 (1788):

The speech in this place [Brighthelmstone] is, how we escape the melancholy months that shew a decaying year, because there are no leaves to fall, forsooth.—But don't you know April from November without trees? Methinks, wanting woods to tell the seasons, is as bad as wanting a weathercock to know which way the wind blows. Here is Mr. * * * * *, however who talks all about taste, and classics, and country customs, and rural sports, with rapture, which he perhaps fancies unaffected was riding by our chaise on the Downs yesterday, and said, because the sun shone, that one could not perceive it was Autumn, for, says he, there is not one tree in sight to shew us the fall of the leaf; and hark! how that sweet bird sings, continued he,just like the first week in May. No, no, replied I, that's nothing but a poor robin-redbreast, whose chill wintry note tells the season too plainly, without assistance from the vegetable kingdom.

Subsequent instances follow a similar pattern. For example, from A.T. Cabot, "Science in Medicine" in The Canada Lancet (January 1898):

The first case [encountered by a family doctor of fifty years ago], perhaps, would be a broken leg, then a pneumonia or dysentery, an ophthalmia, a middle-ear infection, a confinement, and a case if mania. To each of these various cases he would apply himself with trained powers of observation, often noticing and getting guidance from slight physical signs or movements of the patient which now pass unnoticed by the modern clinician. For the latter, with his instruments of precision, his clinical thermometer, his modern stethoscope, his stomach-tube , his specula, his blood count, and various other microscopical examinations, has more certain guides to a correct opinion, and does not need observation of the lighter straws to see which way the wind blows.


Conclusion

The statement "you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows" seems to be Bob Dylan's own formulation. However, it is built on the centuries-old popular observation that "straws [or a feather] will show which way the wind blows." Connecting the dots, it seems obvious that if tossing straws or a feather into the air will accurately indicate which way the wind is blowing, there is no need to depend on a meteorologist to make the provide the same information. This goes for figurative winds, straws, feathers, and weathermen as well as for literal ones.

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Some proverbs where wind is could refer to popular opinion (or more generally to some palpable prevailing force), listed in the Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs, and their earliest associated date:

  • To sail with the wind and tide (1546)
  • As the wind blows, you must set your sail (1846)
  • The wind in one's face makes one wise (1640)
  • The wind keeps not always in one quarter (1579)
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This phrase appears in The Phantom Tollbooth by Normal Juster, which was published in 1961. Possibly Dylan got it from there.

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    Please provide quotation and full reference. Does Juster say exactly what Dylan does, using "weatherman", or something else about the wind?
    – Stuart F
    Feb 15, 2022 at 11:45
  • What happens in The Phantom Tollbooth is that the Weather Man (Whether Man) releases balloons, and says "Much see which way the wind is blowing." The balloons "disappear in all directions." It's close, but this isn't horseshoes. Feb 15, 2022 at 21:47
  • "I thought you were the Weather Man," said Milo, very confused. "Oh no," said the little man, "I'm the Whether Man, not the Weather Man, for after all it's more important to know whether there will be weather than what the weather will be." And with that he released a dozen balloons that sailed off into the sky. "Must see which way the wind is blowing," he said, chuckling over his little joke and watching them disappear in all directions. That’s from page 9 of the Norton Justler book published in 1961. Nov 3, 2023 at 7:57
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Don't forget that "weatherman" itself is a play on words.

What were the weathermen when Mr. Zimmerman wrote the song? The Weather Underground was a small, violent offshoot of Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS, a group created in the turbulent '60s to promote social change.

Now which came first? Did the SDS offshoot group take their name from Subterranean Homesick Blues or did Dylan make a play on words referencing the SDS offshoot group?

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    "Now which came first?" According to Wikipedia The group took its name from Bob Dylan's lyric, "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows", from the song "Subterranean Homesick Blues" (1965). Jul 26, 2022 at 15:48
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    According to Wikipedia, The Weathermen were organized in 1969.
    – Hot Licks
    Jul 26, 2022 at 17:00
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The lyric is a reference to the terrorist organization "The Weathermen" that existed in the 70s.

Dylan is explicitly saying to his young listener to keep their nose clean and avoid plainclothes police because there is no need for organizations like the Weatherman in order to know America is (in Dylan's mind) heading towards a revolution.

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    Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Feb 13, 2022 at 22:25
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    Bob Dylan's song Subterranean Homesick Blues was first recorded in 1965. Had the terrorist organization "The Weathermen" been founded by then? Feb 13, 2022 at 23:08
  • @PeterShor - Not until 1969, according to Wikipedia.
    – Hot Licks
    Jul 26, 2022 at 17:01

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