Patti Smith’s performance of Bob Dylan’s ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ at the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm was truly magnificent, perhaps the song’s greatest interpretation. I was moved to tears by the deep feeling that flowed through her rendition of a song even more germane now than when it was written. The moment when Patti was overwhelmed by the imagery of the second verse and her own nervousness only made it even more moving, increasing the humanity of her performance. It was one of the great musical moments of 2016.
Writing about the event in the New Yorker, Amanda Petrusich noted that earlier Carl-Henrik Heldin, the chairman of the board of the Nobel Foundation, had said, ‘In times like these, the Nobel Prize is important’. Petrusich continued: ‘What he meant by the phrase ‘times like these’ – that our days were dark – seemed immediately evident to everyone in the room.’ Indeed.
When I learned last week that, in Bob Dylan’s absence, Patti Smith would sing ‘Hard Rain’ at the Nobel ceremony I realised that more than half a century after its creation, this was the song that encapsulated the mood of this dreadful year. The song has been woven into my life ever since I first dropped the needle on Freewheelin‘ as a fifteen-year-old in 1963. During all that time it has slipped in and out of my consciousness and taken on new or different meanings as time and circumstance changed. As Amanda Petrusich observed in her piece in the New Yorker:
That Dylan ultimately accepted the Nobel with a folk song (and this specific folk song, performed by a surrogate, a peer) seemed to communicate something significant about how and what he considers his own work (musical, chiefly), and the fluid, unsteady nature of balladry itself—both the ways in which old songs are fairly reclaimed by new performers, and how their meanings change with time.
For that’s where the true power of this lyric lies. In the sleeve notes for Freewheelin‘, nat Hentoff stated that Dylan had written ‘Hard Rain’ as his response to the Cuban Missile crisis of October 1962 when we all thought we were about to die. In fact, he had begun writing the song (then known as ‘Strange Rain’ early that year. He mentioned it to a friend in February as a song in which ‘I set out to write about fall-out and bomb-testing but I didn’t want it to be a slogan song. Too many of the protest songs are bad music.’
To anyone who listened, it was always clear that ‘Hard Rain’ was concerned with more than nuclear fallout, its allusive lyrics replete with intense and powerful imagery evoking any number of desperate fears. In April 1963, Dylan appeared on Studs Terkel’s radio show and told him:
I wanted to get the most down that I knew about into one song as I possibly could. … It’s not atomic rain, it’s just a hard rain. It’s not the fall-out rain. It isn’t that at all. I just mean some sort of end that’s just gotta happen.
It’s remarkable, amidst the current concern over fake online news and its possible impact on the EU referendum and the American presidential election, to read what Dylan says next to Terkel:
In the last verse, when I say ‘When the pellets of poison are flooding the waters’, I mean all the lies that people get told on their radios and in their newspapers.
The first known performance of the song also pre-dated the Cuban Missile crisis. The day after my 14th birthday, on 22 September 1962, Dylan sang it as part of a three-song set during an all-star hootenanny organised by Pete Seeger.
This was a productive period in which Dylan wrote many of the most celebrated protest and folk-style songs of his early period, including ‘Blowing in the Wind’, ‘Hollis Brown’, ‘Don’t Think Twice and ‘Oxford Town’. But all of these songs pale alongside ‘Hard Rain’. Although Dylan based the structure of the song on the traditional English folk ballad, ‘Lord Randall’ with its series of questions addressed to a returning lord, it would not be until we heard the songs on side two of Bringing It All Back Home in 1965 that we would hear anything like this again.
In the first volume of his painstaking survey of every scrap of lyric that Dylan ever produced, Clinton Heylin, referring to the fact that Dylan described the song as a poem at first, writes (presciently in light of the Nobel Literature prize):
The main question arising is, Where had Dylan been hiding all this erudition? With ‘Hard Rain’ he abandoned any pretence that he was just a worried man with a worried mind and grabbed hold of a word that has haunted him ever since – ‘poet’.
Described by Rolling Stone magazine as ‘the greatest protest song by the greatest protest songwriter of his time’, ‘Hard Rain’ is, without a doubt, one of Dylan’s lyrics that can with justification be considered as poetry. It reads as well on the page as it sings in the mind. It’s a relentless stream of imagery and lyrical repetition that over seven minutes delineates a landscape of terror and darkness. With its clown who cries in the alley, the girl who offers a rainbow, the white man who walks a black dog, the executioner whose face is well-hidden, and ten thousand who whisper but nobody listens, it’s a precursor to the surrealist imagery of songs like ‘Desolation Row’ and ‘Gates of Eden’.
It is deeply political yet its elaborate metaphors lift it well above the standard protest song. In length and brilliance, and the force of its critique, its only equal is ‘It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding’. ‘Every line in it is actually the start of a whole song,’ Dylan said at that time. ‘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.’ And that is the song’s greatness, that it embraces all our worst fears. Of war and cruelty, hatred and persecution, the stifling of dissent and free expression, and the rape of the natural world:
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 …
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken,
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children …
Heard ten thousand whisperin’ and nobody listenin’,
Heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin’,
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter,
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley …
I met a young child beside a dead pony,
I met a white man who walked a black dog,
I met a young woman whose body was burning,
I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow,
I met one man who was wounded in love,
I met another man who was wounded with hatred …
The second verse, the one Patti Smith stumbled on – perhaps overcome by the force of its imagery – describes a dystopian nightmare state, a landscape ravaged by a surreal despair:
Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall
However, ‘Hard Rain’ does not end in despair, but with a determination to push back against the forces of darkness, as the ‘blue-eyed son’, ‘my darling young one’ of the opening verse insists on ‘goin’ back out before the rain starts a-fallin’. Here Dylan expressed his task as an artist: to sing out against the darkness, to ‘tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it’. Watching Patti Smith last night you could see her, too, put her entire soul into this verse:
Oh, what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what’ll you do now, my darling young one?
I’m a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’,
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest,
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty,
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters,
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison,
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden,
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten,
Where black is the colour, where none is the number,
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,
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’,
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’,
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard,
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.