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New York Notes on Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall"

Rain Day, New York City
Revised December 2016.

Rattle off a list of Bob Dylan lyrics that reference climate metaphors or analogies to the weather - "Blowin' in the Wind," "Rainy Day Women," "Shelter From the Storm," "Thunder On the Mountain," "Buckets of Rain" - it's easy, you see? and somewhere near the top, "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," comes to mind.

And then you'll sing, preferably imitating the voice, "And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, and it's a hard … It's a hard (hold the note long, in the nose) rain 's a-gonna fall," and you'll sing the refrain almost every time a literal hard rain's a-gonna fall or whenever the doomsday feeling washes over you during those prescient moments of impending doom.

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: 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 Jack Kerouac's voice of contemporary alienation and wandering, Dylan reached back into an older time for his imagery, poetry, and voice. 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
well recognized as the formal template for the song. Yet, Dylan answers the similarly-framed questions of father to son - "where have you been?" "what did you see?" "what did you hear?" "who did you meet?" "what'll you do now?" – with a series of mostly disturbing apocalyptic visions, like something out of Dante's Inferno.

The most intense images are saved for the final verse, the song's call to action. Taken in the historical context of 1962, the song could be interpreted to mean the arms race, nuclear threats, the power elite, the struggle for civil rights and racial justice, or even environmental pollution, the latter just emerging into consciousness with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

An excerpt:
"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 at Carnegie Hall. As the song seemed to foretell doom, the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962 made its songwriter look like an especially gifted balladeer, a potential leader for a generation. Reaching back to the language of a century earlier, Dylan brought the visions of hellfire of the 1860s to the fallout shelters of the 1960s’ near nuclear apocalypse.

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.

Update: Singer and writer Patti Smith represented Bob Dylan at the 2016 Nobel ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden with a rendition of "Hard Rain." The prizewinner did not appear. (See story in The New Yorker, December 10, 2016.)

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple.

Related posts:
Back on the Boulevard: A Review of Bob Dylan's Together Through Life
Freewheelin' Jones Street





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