Hard Rain’s a gonna fall: the meaning of the lyrics and the music


By Tony Attwood

In September 22, 1962, Dylan performed “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” for the first time.  It is a song which as many have observed comes from the style of the traditional Anglo-Scottish border ballad “Lord Randal”  which uses the question and answer pattern, “O where ha you been, Lord Randall my son?/ And where ha you been my handsome young man?”

And yet, as I will try to show in this consideration of Hard Rain, the resultant song was not only nothing like Lord Randal in terms of its conceptual embrace, it was nothing like anything else Dylan was writing at the time or would write immediately thereafter.  

During this period of 1962 Dylan wrote many, many songs, (it is said by many critics for this to have been his most productive period, although many of the resultant songs were quickly discarded, as is the way of all young composers).  We know of them because he left the notes or the recordings, but they are the scraps that all creative artists play with while preparing to build their masterpieces.  Some scoop them up and drop them in the bin, Dylan left them for others to crawl across.

But some during this highly productive time were very, very good.  Here is a restricted list in (more or less) their order of composition:

  • Blowing in the wind,
  • Honey just allow me one more chance,
  • Down the highway,
  • Tomorrow is a long time,
  • Hollis Brown,
  • Dont think twice,
  • Oxford town.

And if that were the complete list it would be a pretty big accomplishment, but that isn’t my point.  What interests me is that nothing there prepares us for Hard Rain.

So how can a song come out of nowhere?

Of course it didn’t – every creative act has some sort of context.  A songwriter might start with an idea of what the song is about, or a single line (which leads to the idea of what the song is about), or a melody, or a chord sequence, or a guitar accompaniment or maybe even just a thought.

Here it was the lyrics, and we know from the reports in Heylin and elsewhere that Dylan described the song as a poem at first.  We also know that he kept on changing individual lines within the song over time.

And then he put the melody and chords to the song, and there it was.  It came out of nowhere, and for a while at least it led nowhere.

There was no question of leaning on Lord Randal after Dylan had got the original concept. The young Lord talks with his mother, and we discover he has been poisoned by his lover.  Dylan was after something else.

So what Dylan took was the device – just as Lord Randal either took or gave the device to  the English nursery rhyme Billy Boy with the question, “Where have you been all the day Billy Boy Billy Boy?” That was a song that lasted well into the 20th century – I can recall my mother singing it to me when I was a child.

The reason Dylan could take that specific version of the device was because the song was noted by Francis Child – Harvard University’s first Professor of English, who supervised the publication of a 130-volume collection of the works of the British poets, including eight volumes of English and Scottish Ballads.   (That’s not a slip of my typing finger – it really was 130 volumes long).

Professor Child and Frederick Furnivall then went on to found The Ballad Society, with a view to publishing other important early ballad collections.

Child considered that folk ballads came from a more democratic time in the past when society was not so rigidly segregated into classes, and the “true voice” of the people.  I’ve no idea if Dylan knew of the history of the discovery of the song – but it would be nice to think so, because whatever else it is, Hard Rain is a song about the ordinary people, each and everyone of us, fighting the tyranny of the oppressor.

As others have said many times before me, the lines just come tumbling out one after the other.  We know it was amended in those early days, but even so, the impetus seems to have been unstoppable once the notion of the original structure had been taken.

It was the sleeve notes on Freewheelin’ album that first reported the story that the Cuban Missile Crisis was the inspiration for the song – something later denied by Dylan, and seemingly impossible since the song was written before the crisis.  The sleeve notes also make the oft quoted comment, “Every line in it is actually the start of a whole new song. But when I wrote it, I thought I wouldn’t have enough time alive to write all those songs so I put all I could into this one.”  It can’t be true, but its a good thing to say.

In a 1963 radio interview Dylan said, “In the last verse, when I say, ‘the pellets of poison are flooding the waters’, that means all the lies that people get told on their radios and in their newspapers” which is an interesting addition to our insight, to say the least.  That battle is still being fought, for I have a very close friend with a doctorate in history who refuses to read any contemporary newspaper because of their distortion of reality.  I do read them, but then write a regular highly critical blog pointing out the distortions in one specific realm the papers cover.  We disagree on how to respond, but we both have taken up the fight against the modern press.

We also now know some more about the changes that occurred to the song, for as it happens that as I write this, an early version of the song with some of Dylan’s notations is up for auction.

The changes we can note are not particularly profound – rather the sort of changes that virtually all young poets would undertake when looking at one of their works.  The “six purple mountains” become the less surreal and more atmospheric “twelve misty mountains”

The original opening was “Where have you been, my blue eyed boy, Where have you been, my darling young son.”

And it wasn’t a hard rain that was gonna fall, but “And it’s a hard, It’s a hard, It’s a hard rain must fall.”

Musically the song is as powerful and innovative as it is lyrically.  There is an insistence in the lines between the first two and last two of each verse, pounding away to the IV V I chords sequence.  (That is G, A, D in the key the song is normally performed in).

What makes it so infernally powerful and demanding is the fact that V – I (the last two chords in the repeated sequence in the middle of each verse) is a standard resolution of a song.  It signifies an ending, not a mid-point.  But Dylan uses it, and then instantly goes back and gives it to us again and again and again.  The insistence of the message is overwhelming and all-powerful.  We think it is done and he’s off again.

As a result we lose all sense of where the end is, we lose sense of time and where we are, which is exactly the point of the song – we are in the midst of this deluge of words and images.

Additionally of course it is the Song of Adjectives.  Misty, crooked, sad, dead in verse one alone.  

And the song of numbers.  Twelve, six, seven, a dozen, ten thousand (three times)…

And as one returns to the song after all these years it is clear that Dylan had listened not just to one ancient border song but lots of them, and that he was taking the first tentative step out of folk music towards a musical equivalent of what Ginsburg and co were doing – the first step on the journey that eventually led from Blowing in the Wind to Johnny’s in the basement mixing up the medicine – the Subterranean Homesick Blues and the musical response to the beat poets.   Indeed Dylan did say every single line of Hard Rain is a different song.  Maybe he was right after all, and I’m wrong to dismiss that.

But this was nonetheless a momentary sighting of the land he seemed to want to reach.  After writing this epic the landscape quickly faded out of reach and he was back using the traditions of folk and blues, and not in any way matching up to the new world order of Ginsburg et al.

Of course he got there in the end, but this was the first brave, and as it turned out, tentative, step.  What is clear was that Dylan in writing this magnificent piece, didn’t know what to do with it, so he went back to what he knew.  The tried and tested more minimalist world of Hollis Brown.  Never has there been a greater contrast.

And that is not just in the form of the lyrics, but also the music, for Hard Rain uses a most unusual technique, varying the number of lines in the middle section.

In verse one we have a nine line verse (five in the middle, starting with the misty mountains).  Verse  two is 11 lines, seven in the middle, starting with the new born babe).  Verse three (just to make sure we were not getting the hang of these changes) is the same again – 11 lines.

The it’s a ten line verse with six in the middle (“I met a young child beside a dead pony”), and we finish with the all encompassing 16 line verse (12 in the middle) “I’m a-goin’ back out ’fore the rain starts a-fallin’”

The extension of the last verse is singularly powerful.  Of course as listeners, we haven’t counted the number of lines in each verse but somehow we know this is going on and on – not just by the feel but by the change from “where” to the four subsequent lines before the two chorus lines.

It is also the power and determination of the singer to go out and change the world that accorded with the times – at least for some of us.  I was too young to go out and change the world (what with my mum telling me to be in by 9.30 and the homework to do each night, not to mention the piano practice and me teaching myself the guitar) but it was in my head that somehow I might one day be able to do something against all this grotesque injustice.  

Of course everything then split into bits between those turning up at the freak show of the  Million Dollar Bash, and those who continued the struggle, and those who joined political groups, and those who read revolutionary poetry…

In the end my view was simple – if we could liberate the creativity within everyone we could take people out of their entrapment into a broader world.  But that’s another story.  Quite what Dylan’s view in the end was, I’ve never been sure.  The songs are clues, but the clues are too contradictory.

And  as we come back and listen again after all these years the power and energy are there as great and as demanding as ever.   These words have been with me since I was a kid at school, and they still, still, make me shiver.

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

Looking back, I can’t say I did it very well.

But at least I tried.

Index to all the songs reviewed on this site.


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3 Responses to Hard Rain’s a gonna fall: the meaning of the lyrics and the music

  1. Dearbhla Egan - McArdle says:

    That is a remarkable review and one that I have wondered about for some time. It is certainly comprehensive with amazing new insights and things to think about. One of the best but I have a lot of reading to do still. Thanks Tony

  2. Thank you for a great piece of interesting and informative writing. This link is included in The Bob Dylan Project at: http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/8/A-Hard-Rain's-A-Gonna-Fall
    Play every version of every song performed or written by Bob Dylan plus notable interpretations legally for free…

  3. Roger says:

    Awesome price brother.
    You are a talented writer in your own right.

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