Mar 31, 2010
New York Notes on Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall"
The words of the famous troubadour seem to come from a distant place and time, like he's channeling a fire and brimstone preacher from the Second Great Awakening. Where does a line like "I've been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard" actually come from?
The answer: From the New York Public Library.
Dylan normally penned songs in any of the dozens of coffeehouses in the Village of the day, but in the summer of 1962, Dylan wrote this particular song in the basement apartment belonging to his friend Chip Monck (né Edward Herbert Beresford Monck, in 1939; famous later as the MC and lighting designer for Woodstock) at 160 Bleecker Street (near Thompson). After moving to New York in January of 1961, Dylan mostly sang older ballads and the works of others, but he started searching for what he described in Volume One of his Chronicles (Simon and Schuster, 2004) as the right "template" for his own songs.
Not relating to the Kerouac voice of contemporary alienation and wandering, he reached back into an older time for his imagery, poetry, and voice. He explains that he went to the New York Public Library and read on microfilm many newspaper articles dating from 1855 to 1865, looking for the stories that gave him a sense of everyday life in the antebellum era and in the Civil War, a time he connected with his own.
He writes, “After a while you become aware of nothing but a culture of feeling, of black days, of schism, evil for evil, the common destiny of the human being getting thrown off course. It’s all one long funeral song, but there’s a certain imperfection in the themes, an ideology of high abstraction, a lot of epic, bearded characters, exalted men who are not necessarily good.” (p. 85) His immersion in the rhetoric of 19th century America before the Civil War, plus a dose of Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, goes a long way in understanding many early Dylan songs.
The dialogue structure of some English-Scottish border ballads, in particular, Lord Randall, is
"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
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"
See the entire lyrics on this page at BobDylan.com
Dylan premiered "Hard Rain" on September 22, 1962 in a hootenanny organized by Pete Seeger
In his book, Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads (Public Affairs, 2005), Greil Marcus recounts that when Dylan sang an early version of the song at the Gaslight Café, “some in the crowd came in solemnly behind Dylan on the refrain, as if for a moment the ballad had turned into a Gregorian chant. “ (p. 57) Dylan recorded "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" for Columbia Records in December of 1962 for his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. After searching and then finding the inspiration for his own words in an older tradition, he could write songs that immediately sounded immortal. He was just 21 years old.
Still images taken in the rain with the Hipstamatic app for the iPhone from late March 2010. Visit your local library.
• Back on the Boulevard: A Review of Bob Dylan's Together Through Life
• Freewheelin' Jones Street