A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall

Commentary

Pete Seeger was organizing a folk show at Carnegie Hall in 1962, which was to included the young Bob Dylan. The show would be the biggest of Dylan’s career. They had too many performers, so Seeger announced that each performer would be limited to three songs with no performer playing more than ten minutes in total. Dylan raised his hand and asked what he should do since one of his songs was ten minutes long. Clearly, Dylan was doing things differently.

Dave Van Ronk’s reaction upon hearing Hard Rain for the first time at Gerde’s Folk City:

All I know is that afterward I had to get out of the club. I couldn’t speak – to Bobby or anybody else for that matter. I remember being confused and fascinated that night because, on one hand, the song itself excited me, and on the other, I was acutely aware that it represented the beginning of an artistic revolution.

Hard Rain is that kind of song.

Many observers have noted that the lyrics were influenced by the French Symbolists. Dylan mentions in a 1965 interview with the Village Voice published on March 3, 1965 that he was familiar with Rimbaud’s Evil Flowers. [Note: It was pointed out to me – see “Comments on Whole Page” – that Dylan misspoke (and I didn’t catch it). Evil Flowers was written by Charles Baudelaire.]

The Symbolist movement started in France in the late 19th century, a reaction against the popular Realism of the day. The Symbolists stressed the idea that art should describe inner reality; literature should emphasize the musicality of the words.

The Symbolists – Arthur Rimbaud, Stephane Mallarme, Paul Verlaine, and others – were enormously important to the entire world of art. They influenced the work of W.B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and Wallace Stevens, just to name a few of the major poets. Their style was also influential in both theater and painting.

It also influenced Dylan. Hard Rain is full terrific images and phrases they tickle the ear. “A highway of diamonds with nobody on it”…”ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard”…”ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken”… Tim Riley  1  calls it a “surrealistic downpour” and “expressively untamed writing”.

There’s a lot of alliteration. “twelve misty mountains”“seven sad forests”“ten thousand talkers”“guns and sharp swords”“one hundred drummers”“sound of a clown”… There’s a lot repetition: the mothers questions – where have you been/seen/heard/will do? the son answers – “been” is repeated twice, “saw” seven times, “heard” seven times, “met” six times, “where” six times. There’s more repetition in the chorus: “it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, and it’s a hard”.

Dylan borrowed the question and response pattern from Child Ballad No. 12 Lord Randal.

Todd Harvey notes that the melody is unique to Dylan, unlike many early songs that were derived from traditional songs.

Dylan scholar Stephen Scobie 2 notes that the narrator in Dylan’s many songs, such as this one, often players the role of a prophet. There are many examples of this: Jokerman, When the Ship Comes In, All Around the Watchtower,and many others.

Dylan claimed in an interview with the Sheffield University Paper in May of 1965 that he wrote Hard Rain in a couple days. The song was recorded for Freewheelin’ in one take. It’s a wonderful performance, full of strength and insistence.

Two live performances of note: the song was performed at the Great Music Experience, in Naira City, Japan, 1994, with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. Dylan singing with an orchestra sounds bad on paper, but it worked out beautifully.

My personal favorite, however, is Dylan’s performance of the song at George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh in 1971. Dylan, who hadn’t performed in public for several years, reportedly wheeled in for the show on his bicycle. Dylan starts the song off rather quietly and slowly builds it to a dramatic and powerful conclusion. The close-up camera work effectively adds to the emotional impact of the performance.

Bootleg Series Volume 7 live version.

 

Tom Paxton reminisces on the creation of Hard Rain Is Goin’ to Fall.

Baez’s version,  featuring  her  dead-on Dylan impression.

Pete Seeger, including an interesting introduction.

A nervy version by Bryan Ferry.

 

 


Lyrics

Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?
I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains,
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways,
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests,
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans,
I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard,
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard,
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.

Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it,
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’,
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’,
I saw a white ladder all covered with water,
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken,
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children,
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard,
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.

And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son?
And what did you hear, my darling young one?
I heard the sound of a thunder, it roared out a warnin’,
Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world,
Heard one hundred drummers whose hands were a-blazin’,
Heard ten thousand whisperin’ and nobody listenin’,
Heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin’,
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter,
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley,
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard,
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.

Oh, who did you meet, my blue-eyed son?
Who did you meet, my darling young one?
I met a young child beside a dead pony,
I met a white man who walked a black dog,
I met a young woman whose body was burning,
I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow,
I met one man who was wounded in love,
I met another man who was wounded with hatred,
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard,
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.

Oh, what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what’ll you do now, my darling young one?
I’m a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’,
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest,
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty,
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters,
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison,
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden,
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten,
Where black is the color, where none is the number,
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it,
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it,
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’,
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’,
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard,
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.

Notes:

  1. Hard Rain
  2. Alias Bob Dylan

3 thoughts on “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”

  1. Avatar

    Dylan did say in that interview: “I’ve read his (i.e. Rimbaud’s) tiny little book ‘evil flowers’ too.” But “Les Fleurs du Mal”, 1857, English translation: ‘The Flowers of Evil’ was written by Charles Baudelaire. You cannot mention the Symbolists without mentioning Baudelaire.

    Otherwise great website, great overview of the facts behind the songs.

     

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