This piece has been updated several times. The latest update was 23 September 2017. Since 2015 this has been 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
- Ballad for a friend
- Rambling Gambling Willie
- Standing on the highway
- Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues
- The Ballad of Donald White
- Let me die in my footsteps
- Blowing in the wind
- Corrina Corrina
- Quit your Lowdown Ways
- Down the Highway
- Tomorrow is a long time
- Hard Rain’s a gonna fall
- Ballad of Hollis Brown
- John Brown
- Don’t think twice
- Paths of Victory.
- Walking Down the Line
- Oxford Town
- Kingsport Town
- Hero Blues
- 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.
(This version of Hard Rain was used in the TV series Peaky Blinders)
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.
You might also find Bob Dylan’s Hard Rain’s a gonna fall. Behold desolate, battlefield poetry of interest
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