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

This piece has been updated several times.  The latest update was 23 September 2017.  Throughout 2016/17 it was the most read article on this site.

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 1962 Dylan wrote at least 21 songs that are still remembered and played by fans today.  There are more which have been left behind as notes, incomplete recordings and amendments of folk songs.  But 21 will do for now.

Here’s the list

  1. Ballad for a friend
  2. Rambling Gambling Willie
  3. Standing on the highway
  4. Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues
  5. The Ballad of Donald White
  6. Let me die in my footsteps
  7. Blowing in the wind 
  8. Corrina Corrina
  9. Quit your Lowdown Ways
  10. Down the Highway
  11. Tomorrow is a long time 
  12. Hard Rain’s a gonna fall
  13. Ballad of Hollis Brown
  14. John Brown
  15. Don’t think twice
  16. Paths of Victory.
  17. Walking Down the Line
  18. Oxford Town
  19. Kingsport Town
  20. Hero Blues
  21. Whatcha Gonna Do? 

And there is Hard Rain sitting half way through the year.  Not just a year of incredible productivity but also a year in which the songs that we now particularly remember were so varied musically and lyrically.    From the blues to love songs, from anti-racism to the extraordinary heartfelt song about a friend dying which started the year, from songs of leaving to protest against the way the rural poor have been treated.  It is all there.

And if that were the complete list it would be a pretty big accomplishment, but that isn’t my point.  But what interests me is that nothing other than Dylan’s variety of work and the quantity of extraordinary compositions prepares us for Hard Rain.

So how can a song like this suddenly appear.

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.   (We also have reports that Bob was in the habit of knocking out a new song on the typewriter, fixing in some sort of melody and accompaniment and then rushing off to the Gaslight Club and playing it – just like that).

And here it started as a very unstructured poem, 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.

There is a modernised version of Lord Randal on YouTube

 

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 – so Dylan’s message from 1963 is still with us.

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.

What is on the site

1: Over 400 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.

 

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23 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.

  4. Jason Hannigan says:

    I can only second what Dearblha Egan has said! A great read and very insightful!

  5. Larry Fyffe says:

    The loss of time sense within ominous imagery reminds of the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud:

    (Rimbaud: Barbarian)


    (Bob Dylan: Hard Rain)

  6. Larry Fyffe says:

    “The blazes raining in gusts of frost – bliss/
    Fires in the rain from the winds of diamonds/
    Hurled out by the earthly heart, charred for us-
    O world”.
    Likened imagery expressing violence somewhat toned down by Dylan in Hard Rain.

  7. JACollins says:

    How appropriate for the world right now that this be the song Dylan chooses to be his response to receiving the Nobel Prize. I don’t remember ever hearing it. Now I want to discover more of his lyrics.

  8. Egzon McFiddle says:

    Hi Larry, I’m very sorry about Barney. He will be sorely missed.

    ” Make America Great Again” !

  9. Larry Fyffe says:

    Timeless poetic imagery that, with the coming of Trump as US President, befits the singing of the lyrics at the Dec. 10. 2016 Nobel Prize ceremony.

  10. Elizabeth Parker says:

    A song about mankind in his evolution learning by choices governed by how others view them. The hard rain is the repercussions man reaps by these choices. Bob Dylan is the witness of these choices during his life and asks mankind if they aware of this.

  11. Grandma Dee says:

    Yes. And his ilk worldwide….

  12. Mike says:

    Remarkable review. Phenomenal

  13. Hermias says:

    Thank you for your review, lots of new insight into this beautiful, powerful, timeless, song….it also speaks of tsunami’s, children with guns, poetry dying, famine, emotional trauma….and more…one of the most powerful songs in lyrics and chord progression ever written…

  14. Edward Karl says:

    Wondering if anyone mentions The Book of Revelations as a source. (Especially as regards the mysterious and puzzling use of numbers). I’m not convinced Dylan knew what the purpose of the song was (supposing it has one), but I think it is supposed to be a sort of revelation. It grasps the attention, much as you have described, with various devices, and yet, there seems to be some mystical spring of knowledge invoked, that defies explanation.
    At that point , one might say “just enjoy it.” But that’s not the point either. Is it? Check out Bryan Ferry’s cover of it. Similar… not as raw.

  15. Possibly the greatest poet of the 20th century, yet I wonder how many realise. The Nobel Prize was a relief, an indication that yes, perhaps people do actually realise that we have in our midst, a rare being, a unique angle of vision, a voice and being of such singular talent…it’s hard to fathom he will not be around one day…hard to fathom why he is not more recognised for the depths and broadness and profundity of his poetry than he has been so far…I think it is perhaps the deafening sound of the advancement of the 20th and 21st centuries, the talentless have multiplied and their random bleatings are drowning out the space and quiet that a person like Dylan needs to be seen and heard. Yet at the same time, so powerful and consistent that his words, poetry, talent, and song does, despite the odds, break through the melee and collectively position themselves as the only sound worth hearing…

    What a remarkable piece you have written here. I wish it were spread further and wider, and I wish you, too, would spread it further and wider…expand upon it, and him, and his…

  16. TonyAttwood says:

    Braja – thank you for your kind words. The readership of this website is rising all the time – approaching 800,000 page views in the last year, so yes, quite a few people are reading, and this article is one of the most popular.

  17. Kevin Paramore says:

    Thank you very much for this. Your writing is very salient and quite frankly opened me up to points about Dylan’s music that I had not considered before.

  18. Lea Quail says:

    In 1974, I taught an English Unit to secondary school students here in Australia entitled “The Poetry in Music” and Hard Rain was included in it. The students were absorbed by the lyrics but oh how I would have loved to have had this erudite review available then. Thank you for this review, it indicates demonstrably that the teacher can still learn. Although I enjoy the Brian Ferry version, the raw presentation of Bob Dylan seems to be more appropriate the subject matter.

  19. TonyAttwood says:

    Lea you are too, too kind. I am quite overwhelmed. I’ll be in Australia next February, so if by chance I am within 1000 miiles of you (its a big country I know) I’ll buy you a drink to say thankyou.
    Tony

  20. Rodney Baldwin says:

    Deservedly complimentary comments & appropriately self deprecating in the face of genius although Dylan himself would never laud shrinking violets & probably secretly enjoyed the criticism of him by another genius Joni Mitchell,as much as like myself he enjoys Gordon Lightfoots deceptively profound lyrics & their sheer beauty of delivery which ironically is Joni Ms major forte!Lets not ever lose the main thrust of ALL THREE,that being freedom to express our reflection of our world as beautifully & truthfully as we can asserting the one primal sacred fire of the will to live,& the innocence to believe & promote other beings sacred right to live WITHOUT POISONOUS LIES & being reduced to commodities like abbattoir meat!Braja Sorenson covers a breadth of the deliberate dumbing down of the world & a large part of that is lies by omission which even read closely the Bibles old & new testaments are a party to & certainly for three decades now radio stations in Australia have omitted all the great emotional,spiritual & intellectual food of popular music such as from Dylan,Lightfoot,Rodriguez,McTell,Joni M,Melanie etc until with just token representation you end up with a parody & a much hollowed out birthright & worldview & so a population of facile drug addled people with perhaps only a spoken family heritage of cultural values for the fortunate ones. Perhaps Tony Attwoods heroic quest can be affirmed & inspired by Gordon Lightfoots gentle yet powerful song Don Quixote & for all of us in touch with our Sacred Fire,that is not an impossible dream!Rod B.

  21. TonyAttwood says:

    Rodney I dont think anyone has ever described something I have done as a heroic quest before. I feel mighty honoured!

  22. Ryan says:

    What a superb review of a masterful, timeless song. I had no idea it was based on, or at least mirrored, Lord Randal. Thank you for this fine writing and wealth of information, Tony. I learned quite a bit. Oh, and I’m about to finish my Ph.D. in history…but I haven’t broken myself of modern newspapers yet!

  23. TonyAttwood says:

    Ryan thank you so much for your compliment. In addition to the kind and insightful comments received here we do get an awful lot of abuse – most of which is of course not published. To read such a compliment is a major reason to keep on keeping on.

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