At a party in the early 1960’s, Allen Ginsberg heard a new song by an up-and-coming folk singer named Bob Dylan. The song was called “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and it moved the poet to tears. “It seemed the torch had been passed to another generation,” said Ginsberg, who had been a part of the groundbreaking literary and cultural movement known as the Beat Generation just a decade before. “I was knocked out by the eloquence . . . Poetry is words that are empowered to make your hair stand on end,” he said in an interview for Martin Scorsese’s documentary, No Direction Home.
When my dad played Bob Dylan for my brother and I as young kids, I didn’t think much of it and was possibly even turned off by his raspy voice and antiquated sound. Nonetheless, I could not resist Dylan forever and have since become an avid listener of his music. In fact, he’s my current number two on Spotify Wrapped! Admittedly, I have also become an occasional skimmer of the many books written about him that line the shelves of my home. “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” however, was a recent discovery for me.
The song opens as most older Dylan songs do—to the mellow strumming of an acoustic guitar and an introduction to that iconic voice of his. The first two lines of the song are questions, “Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?” and “Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?” The following five lines act as responses and this pattern of call and response continues throughout the entire song. This structure is an appropriation of the old Scottish ballad, “Lord Randall,” from which Dylan took inspiration. “Oh where ha’e ye been, Lord Randall my son?” mirrors Dylan’s “Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?” By opening verses with questions like these, Dylan not only sets up for a response to what he has seen, who he has met, what he has heard and what he will do now; Dylan allows for those responses to sound like the echoes of a traveler who’s seen it all. The circular nature of this question and answer pattern allows for the responses to cement in the listener’s heads.
These responses are chock full of symbolic and often apocalyptic lyrics that seem to cover so much; each line seems to speak to a different issue, a different anxiety or a different tragedy. “Hard Rain’s is a desperate kind of song. Every line in it is actually the start of a whole 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,” Dylan wrote in the liner notes to “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall.” (Dylan).
The lyrics fluctuate between the abstract—“I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it”—and the intensely real—“I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children.” The song dives from symbolism about slavery—“I met a white man who walked a black dog,” to the impossiblity of social moblity—“I saw a white ladder all covered with water.” I was especially moved by two lines—“I met one man who was wounded in love,” followed by, “I met another man who was wounded with hatred,”—which are also worthy of entire essays on Genius’ lyric annotations.
From looking at the lyrics alone, the song seems depressing. I sometimes imagine a weary son who recalls heartbreaking tragedy and the vices of humankind to his parental figure with whom he is finally reunited. Yet, the song sounds uplifting, filling me with the same feeling as some of Dylan’s finger-pointing protest songs like “Masters of War” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” The end of “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall” feels triumphant. In the liner notes to the album Dylan writes, “The way I think about the blues comes from what I learned from Big Joe Williams. The blues is more than something to sit home and arrange. What made the real blues singers so great is that they were able to state all the problems they had; but at the same time, they were standing outside them and could look at them. And in that way, they had them beat” (Dylan).
Does Dylan have the problems that he states in the song beat simply because he wrote about them? No, of course not; but by writing about them, by speaking them and feeling them he is, in a way, protesting them. “And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it,” he writes near the end of the song. “And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it/ Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’/ But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’,” he finishes.
I think Dylan was well aware of the song’s acute blend of protest and pain. In one rendition, he plays alongside an orchestra complete with blaring horns and dramatic violins that make the song sound like it belongs at the end credits to a glorious action movie. In his Rolling Thunder Revue tour in 1975, he played it like a bar song creating the happy-sad blend of a drinking song. His most common, and in my opinion best, way to play the song is with one acoustic guitar and the raspy voice of a weary traveler. It sounds raw and a bit rough around the edges—the authentic Dylan that I enjoy the most.
One especially beautiful rendition of the song was performed by Patti Smith for part of the ceremonies in Stockholm where Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016. Smith got tripped up a couple of minutes into her performance but the audience gave her a warm applause after she apologized and she continued on. In a candid, poetic piece for the New Yorker she explained, “I hadn’t forgotten the words that were now a part of me, I was simply unable to draw them out.” Many of the audience members received her kindly, telling her that the performance seemed a metaphor for their own struggles. “It was not lost on me that the narrative of the song begins with the words ‘I stumbled alongside twelve misty mountains,’ and ends with the line ‘And I’ll know my song well before I start singing,’” Smith wrote, “I felt the humiliating sting of failure, but also the strange realization that I had somehow entered and truly lived the world of the lyrics,” she shared.
It’s that last line, “And I’ll know my song well before I start singing,” that strikes me the hardest. To me it’s a clarion call for other writers, singers, artists and anyone with something to say to take up the mantle and speak from their hearts. It speaks to having confidence in one’s own work, one’s own creed, without the need for affirmation from commercial success, critics or anyone else. It’s this line that brought Ginsberg to tears of joy—he came to the realization that new poets had taken up the mantle. Dylan was confident in his craft and ready to tell his stories before he even started signing. “I’ll know my song well before I start singing,” perhaps that’s a resolution I’ll take into 2022.