Bob Dylan’s Hard Rain’s a gonna fall. Behold desolate, battlefield poetry

A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall (1963)

by Jochen Markhorst

The English artist David Gray makes three rather unnoticed albums before becoming a millionseller in 1999 with his fourth album White Ladder. The single “Babylon” is a top hit, the song “Please Forgive Me” is the real highlight and by now the counter shows seven million copies sold. In Ireland it is the best-selling record of all time; every fourth household must have a copy of White Ladder in its record collection.

The name Dylan hardly ever pops up in the cheering reviews. Only a few compare the Gray’s gritty voice with the bard, but no one recognizes the influence of Dylan. David does give a big hint, though: the title of his album is derived from verse 15 of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, I saw a white ladder already covered with water.

On his albums he never honours Dylan openly, but concert visitors are occasionally surprised with a reverence; Gray plays beautiful covers of his hero. Not very often, but still. “One Too Many Mornings” and “Meet Me In The Morning” several times, a few times “Buckets Of Rain”, “Jokerman” and “Like A Rolling Stone” both a single time, as well as “To Ramona”. Noteworthy is the one time that “No More Auction Block” passes by – that is the age-old song that enters music history when Dylan uses it as a model for “Blowin ‘In The Wind”. But from Hard Rain Gray stays away, for the time being.

It is a subtly chosen reference. Hard Rain is, of course, a packed song, filled to the brim with mostly loud, bizarre, sensational tableaux, and therein remains somewhat snowed under this serene, quiet image of a wet white ladder.

The richness of the lyrics has at the time the impact of a high-explosive shell and still is rarely equalled. The much-cited Dylan quote in the liner notes, “Every line in it is actually the start of a whole song” is actually an accurate, striking characterization. The thirty-three verses (chorus not included) are intrinsically unrelated and indeed offer thirty-three powerful, vivid, plastic images, each of which could be a decor, a plot twist or an introduction to thirty-three powerful, narrative ballads.

The rest of that quote on the back cover is a now refuted attempt to mythologize. In it, the poet declares to have written the song during the Cuban crisis and that the resulting mortal fear was the trigger to squeeze all those possible songs into this one song. Hogwash; Dylan plays Hard Rain on September 22, 1962, in Carnegie Hall, a month before those thirteen days in October when the world holds its breath.

It is not alienating, however, that constructed link with an imminent Armageddon – Hard Rain is indeed apocalyptic. The majority of the evoked images call calamity, are lugubrious, desolate, battlefield poetry. Dead oceans, tens of thousands of miles in the mouth of a graveyard, heavily armed children, blood-dripping tree branches, a flood, a dead pony, a dying poet, a burning woman, poisonous bullets and a masked executioner … this is not a cozy child-friendly colouring page, at any rate.

The Book of Revelations, the Bible book in which John of Patmos describes his infernal visions of the end-time, seems to be the direct source of inspiration. Like John, the poet Dylan is sensitive to the expressiveness of numbers, for example. Twelve misty mountains, six crooked highways, seven sad forests, ten thousand speakers and a hundred drummers; the bookkeeper’s precision corresponds to John’s tendency to count accurately. The twelve tribes, the lamb with the seven horns, the first six seals, ten thousand times ten thousand angels – even the numbers are correct. A similar analogy is the summing-up of those unrelated, partly gruesome images. In terms of content, they also correspond a few times. The floods, the roaring thunder, dying seas, famine and the spectator on the mountain – all of them images that we also encounter in Revelation. But the most eye-catching is the perspective: the eyewitness who reports the grotesque ruin scenes, summarized in the most desolate verse in the entire oeuvre of the Nobel Prize laureate, where black is the colour, where none is the number.

The scholars all agree on the second great source of inspiration. The question-and-answer structure, including the words where have you been, comes from the seventeenth century Child Ballad no. 12, “Lord Randall”. Any other similarities with that masterly, haunting Scottish ballad there are not, neither contentwise nor melodic, but that repeated question at the beginning of each verse is so characteristic that there is no question as to how the thief of thoughts has come up with that hypnotic form. Dylan will use it one more time, in “Who Killed Davey Moore?” and then this specific form is exhausted.

That does not apply to the discovery of stringing together a collage-like series of symbol-pregnant images. The text suggests an epic quality, insinuating that a story is told here. On request, the narrator reports where he has been, what he has seen and heard, who he has met and what his further plans are. This is like coherent historiography. However, his report is so poetically wrapped, articulated in such an expressionist distortion of reality, that every attempt to discover a storyline (like “Lord Randall” has), is killed in that lyrical bombing. Only one image remains intact: doom.

The poetry provides the song timeless value and at the release of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan the song immediately jumps out. Not so much because of the duration – twice as long as the average song – but especially because of this, this literary quality. It is no coincidence that this work is chosen, more than fifty years later, to be sung at the Nobel Peace Ceremony (by a touching Patti Smith). After all, it is the Nobel Prize for Literature, awarded “for having created new poetic expressions”.

Initially the maestro seems reluctant to explore this art form further, after the creation of this masterpiece. It takes until “Gates Of Eden” (1965) before Dylan creates a similar poem full of new poetic expressions. But then floodgates open. “It’s Alright, Ma”, “Farewell Angelina”, “Tombstone Blues” and so on into the twenty-first century with songs like “High Water” and “Scarlet Town”; the dozens of songs in which Dylan subordinates the narration to the accumulation of multicoloured, often very visual impressions are among his most fascinating.

The Olympic quality of Hard Rain attracts quite a few colleagues. The song is often covered, but rarely well, unfortunately. One of the best known is the adaptation by Bryan Ferry, scoring a big hit in 1973 (Top 10 in England) and still having many fans on the forums and on YouTube.

Remarkable; the somewhat stylized, driving approach of the poseur Ferry, with neurotic violins and all, would theoretically not fit well with the raw original – but indeed, an indefinite attraction this version still has. More inventive than the friendly stomp of Leon Russel (1971) and the very similar Melanie (1993) in any case. And much more tolerable than the unimaginative, perfunctory mood of usual suspects like Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and The Staple Singers. Curious is reggae colossus Jimmy Cliff (“Where have you been, my brown-eyed son”), in 2011 on the EP Sacred Fire.

A second life, or third actually, Hard Rain gets in the late 80s, when Edie Mrs. Paul Simon Brickell sings the song for the soundtrack of the film hit Born On The Fourth Of July. It is a pretty stale, flat cover of a moderately talented singer, but it does touch a chord; in the aftermath of the success of the soundtrack, a next generation picks up the song again. This mostly results in acoustical, serious renditions with a hardly tolerable art college fragrance (Jason Mraz, Walk Off The Earth, Lucinda Williams), but also in one that comes close to the monumental original. In 2007 the veteran Ann Wilson (the singer of that hard rock dinosaur from the 70s, Heart), in association with the youngsters Shawn Colvin and Rufus Wainwright, comes up with a beautiful version, passionately sung, masterfully arranged and lovingly produced (on Hope & Glory).

Just a small step higher is, finally, the little-known troubadour David Munyon, who at the age of fifty-seven is blessed with a fragile old voice, with the skill of a tried and tested warrior and the wisdom with which he knows how to convey the odd impressions of that horrifying journey (on Big Shoes, 2009).

Matched he may be, perhaps, perhaps, someday by David Gray, who demonstrates on A Thousand Miles Behind (live, available only through his site or at concerts) how well he can handle Dylan songs. The commandment of the master, thou shalt know my song well before thou startest singin’, keeps him away from “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”. For now.


You might also enjoy “Hard Rain’s a gonna fall” – the meanings behind the music and the lyrics.


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3 Responses to Bob Dylan’s Hard Rain’s a gonna fall. Behold desolate, battlefield poetry

  1. LarryFyffe says:

    …. all covered with water

  2. Jochen Markhorst says:

    Oops. Of course. Thanks, Larry.

  3. Kiwipoet says:

    Another great article Jochen, thanks. Kia Ora!
    Noteworthy as a remarkable performance of Hard Rain by Dylan himself took place in 1994 in Japan with the Japanese orchestra. A grand, billowy performance with lush strings and an epic feel. It can be found on You Tube.
    My favourite performance however is Dylan’s 1981 Huston concert version with a gospel feel. Dylan handles the lyric with consummate mastery, never allowing the song to drag.
    In same ways, the song anticipates later experiments with time in Tangled up in Blue and Where are you Tonight, since, following the Lord Randall model, the same journey is being referred to in each verse.
    And… my son remarked the other day how often Dylan evokes the figure of the mother or ‘mama’ in his songs. Many examples spring to mind. The conversation between mother and son in Hard Rain has its parallel in the bitter exchange between mother and son in John Brown.

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