This is a profoundly stupid lyric in an otherwise truly great song. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s Blowin’ in the Wind by Bob Dylan. He sang it first, but it was covered by nearly all of the folk singers of the 1960s, and pretty much all of them sang it better than Dylan sung it. My favorite version is by Peter, Paul, and Mary:
I should note that this song is truly great if it’s taken as a lament of sin; if the questions are rhetorical because the poor, we will always have with us. And I do think that this was—not, perhaps with perfect understanding—Bob Dylan’s intention:
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.
The answer to all of the questions is, “when everyone becomes a saint,” and indeed the answer is readily available but people won’t pick it up.
The one question in the song which cannot be taken as anything but an infantile cry for mommy and daddy to make everything better is the line I quoted in the title. The first and most obvious reason it’s just an infantile cry is: who will ban the cannon balls, and how will they enforce this ban? The only way to enforce a ban is by force, so in a direct sense whoever has better weapons than cannon balls can ban them. Nations possessing nuclear weapons could impose a cannon ball ban, for example. This is directly opposite to the intention of the song, but it is in fact the only possible answer.
Except that cannon balls were obsolete long before Blowin’ in the Wind was written. Cannon balls were a military weapon that answered the musket and pike formation which superceded bows on the battlefield. Musketeers were very slow, but a lot of them, shooting in alternation, could be fast. Because they were individually slow they were very vulnerable to cavalry, who could close the distance to musketeers before the latter could get off a second shot. The answer was to keep the musketeers close together and defend them with pikemen. Pikes were, basically, very long spears, which were good at keeping horses at bay.
The answer to the musket-and-pike formation was the cannon ball. An enormous ball of iron traveling at high speed would do enormous damage to a dense formation of men, as it would roll through them injuring or killing everyone in a straight line. This is why it was a cannon all rather than a shell; the rolling was integral to how it was used.
The answer to the cannon ball were the wide lines that were only 3 men deep which characterized infantry battles in the 1700s. With the lines being only 3 men deep, a cannon ball would injure at most only a few men as it rolled on (unless the lines made the grave mistake of maneuvering perpendicular to the enemy’s cannons). Cannon balls were a specialty item, and as military tactics adapted to them, they ceased to be used. Things like exploding shells with shrapnel, “grapeshot” (basically loading cannons with shrapnel rather than a single large projectile) etc displaced the cannon ball because they were better suited to the new military conditions.
Cannon balls were on their way out during the American civil war and were not used during World War 1 or World War 2 or the Korean war. They were most certainly not used during the “police action” in Vietnam with which much of the 1960s protest movement was concerned.
No one knows how many times cannon balls flew in history, but by the time Blowin’ in the Wind was written, the number of times they flew before their use was discontinued was a definite, if uncertainly known, quantity.
But they weren’t banned. They were only put down in favor of better weapons.
As a curious historical side-note, the use of poison gasses on the battlefield was banned. But the ban was enforced by the threat to use chemical weapons too. So, in effect, the use of chemical weapons was banned by the use of even more chemical weapons.
Not the answer that the protest movement wanted, but very much in keeping with the rest of the song.
The answer is blowin’ in the wind, and people don’t stop to pick it up.
UPDATE: Thanks to Paul for pointing out that I used the wrong spelling of “cannon”.