The lyrics and the music: Hard Rain’s A-gonna Fall. A musical and lyrical revolution.

“The Lyrics and the Music” is a series by Tony Attwood which tries to find out what happens when one reviews a Dylan song not primarily as a set of lyrics, but as a piece of music which includes lyrics.   An updated list of previous articles in the series is given at the end.

In a 1963 radio interview Bob said, “No, it’s not atomic rain, it’s just a hard rain. It isn’t the fallout rain. I mean some sort of end that’s just gotta happen … 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.”

That comment I think gives us an insight into the lyrics, which is bolstered by listening to the rather obvious effect of the music.  Musically, it is, in its original form, a gentle, highly repetitive song.

But that doesn’t really tell us the whole story, because in western culture one of the most common forms of gentle, repetitive songs, is nursery rhymes like “Ba ba blacksheep.”  (You’ll have to forgive me here, I don’t know if that is a song known outside of the UK, but if not, take it from it, it is very gentle and simple and sung to children to help them go to sleep).

Musically “Hard Rain” is indeed highly repetitive.   The first two lines are very similar, the difference being that the second line ends on the dominant chord, which gives us a feeling that we’ve reached a turning point, and something different will happen.

We then get five lines beginning with “I” and then the two chorus lines containing the title.

Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?

I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans
I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard

And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

It is a very gentle song; if one heard the music and did not know the lyrics (which of course is now impossible) it could almost be a nursery rhyme, and the places one has visited could have been places a child would know.

Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?

I've been to see Grandma and I've been to see Grandad...

OK that sounds really weird because we know the song, but if we did not, it is a song that could be invented as a calming process when the child is settled down at night and for fun the song changes each night to record what actually happened.   (And really I can’t believe I was the only dad who sang to his children as they settled down for night…. nor the only one who amused them by changing the lyrics and the songs sometimes…)

Anyway, it could have been a gentle lullaby, given the music, but in fact it is a warning about the end of the world, which gives us a staggering contrast between the gentle music and what the lyrics actually say; a contrast that makes the song all the more effective.

Now this is quite a hard trick to pull off.  A lesser composer would have given us sharp-edged chords and a jagged or monotonous melody.   And yes Dylan does repeat the music in the main body of the verse over and over: we get lines in the main body of the song anything between five and twelve times in a verse.  And it makes the point – we are being pushed down and down and down by what is happening around us.

That of course could be horribly dull, but it is rescued by various factors.  First through the contrast between the delicate nature of the music and the horrors portrayed in the lyrics.  Second because of the total abandonment of rhyming after the first two lines of each verse.  And third, as noted just now, because we get the same musical line over and over and over as if we are being driven down deeper and deeper into the ground by the terrible events that the song relates.

To my mind it really was here, in this song, that Bob Dylan realised just how far he could take popular music and folk music.   The length could be anything.  The subject matter could move as far away from the traditional “love, lost love and dance” themes of popular music.   Repetition of the music to a level never heard before could be used if the lyrics were interesting and varied enough.  And perhaps most extraordinary of all, for any musician listening, the verses could be of different lengths (nine lines in the first verse, 16 in the last verse).

This was in fact a song that tore up the rule book and threw it out the window.   But that could have resulted in something that was nothing more than a jumble, if Dylan had not constructed a new format that held the song together.  And for that he needed the repeating lyrics, as well as the repeating music.

It is, in fact, not just a work of lyrical and musical genius, it is a song that offered songwriters a chance to see just how far the song format could be taken.  It is hardly Bob’s fault that so few of them had the ability to take the hint and try it themselves.

The lyrics and the music: the series…

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