Bob Dylan, meanwhile, was in the midst of a very productive period of song writing, penning nearly 40 songs in 1962. One of these was “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall,” which Dylan appears to have written sometime that summer, possibly influenced by the gathering storm clouds over Cuba. The song would become a classic protest song, one filled with forebodings on war, social injustice, and other dreads. Dylan first performed the song in September at the Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village, and then more publicly a week or so later on September 22nd at Carnegie Hall as part of a hootenanny show sponsored by Sing Out magazine. Dylan by then had also been working in studio sessions with his recording label, Columbia Records, which would record “Hard Rain” as part of his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, not released for sale until late May 1963.
Dylan patterned “A Hard Rain…” after a British folk ballad, “Lord Randall,” Child Ballad No. 12, from the late 19th century, in which a mother repeatedly questions her son, beginning with “Where have you been?,” as the ballad later reveals the son has been poisoned and dies. Dylan’s “Hard Rain” embraces a broad message with themes and imagery relevant to injustice, suffering, pollution and warfare – a song well-suited for its times and beyond.
“A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall”
Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my blue eyed son?
And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, who did you meet my blue-eyed son?
And what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
By October 1962, the “Cuban missile crisis,” as it came to be called, had the full attention of a nervous nation. The young Presidency of John F. Kennedy was brought to the brink of war in a showdown with Russia. On October 16th, Kennedy was shown new U-2 photos revealing fully-equipped missile bases in Cuba capable of attacking the U.S. with nuclear warheads. Plans were drawn up for a possible U.S. invasion of Cuba, as a massive mobilization of military personnel and hardware began. Troops and equipment were assembled in Florida. President Kennedy appeared on television to inform Americans of the crisis and the possibility of a confrontation. A Naval blockade was placed around Cuba to prevent the Russians from delivering more missiles. In the end, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev turned his ships around, averting what some believe could have become World War III. The Soviets agreed to dismantle the missile sites and the U.S. agreed not to invade Cuba. The crisis was the closest the world ever came to nuclear war in the 1960s.
Bob Dylan no doubt, like the rest of the country at the time, wasn’t sure what those days might bring. In the liner notes on Dylan’s Freewheelin’ album of May 1963, music writer Nat Hentoff would reveal that Dylan wrote “A Hard Rain” under some dread at the time – certainly in the shadow of Cold War tensions generally, whether or not the summer-of-1962 events on Cuba were the spur for the song: “Every line in it [i.e. Hard Rain] is actually the start of a whole new song,” Dylan told Hentoff. “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.”
Certainly in the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis, as the nation had faced the possibility of a nuclear exchange, Dylan’s “Hard Rain” dread – and similar songs that would arrive with his Freewheelin album, including “Blowin in the Wind,” and “Masters of War” – gave Dylan a kind of philosophical currency he did not have before. But Dylan did add come clarification when it was suggested that the refrain of “Hard Rain” was meant to convey nuclear fallout. In a 1963 radio interview with Studs Terkel, Dylan stated: “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.”
“A Hard Rain,” said one review in Rolling Stone, “is the first public instance of Dylan grappling with the End of Days, a topic that would come to dominate his work.” The verses, continued that review, are examples of Dylan describing his task as an artist: “to sing out against darkness wherever he sees it.” Bob Weir of the 1960s’ Grateful Dead rock group said of the song: “It’s beyond genius… I think the heavens opened and something channeled through him.”Blogger Teri Tynes, reviewing “Hard Rain” in March 2010 at Walking Off The Big Apple.com, noted that the song’s series of “mostly disturbing apocalyptic visions” were “like something out of Dante’s Inferno.” Tynes also noted the call to action that comes with, “What will you do now my blue-eyed son?” in the final verse. “Taken in the historical context of 1962,” Tynes wrote, “the song could be interpreted to mean the arms race, nuclear threats, the power elite, the struggle for civil rights and racial justice, or even environmental pollution, the latter just emerging into consciousness with the [September 1962] publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.”
Dylan himself writes about that period of his life in his book, Chronicles, where he explains that he was then reading a lot about the pre-Civil War period at the New York Public Library, and finding little to be cheery about. That, no doubt, coupled with the angst of his own times, pushed the artist to his own inner revelations and the poetry he then produced. Dylan was 21 years old in 1962, with a lot more ahead.
“What Does It Mean?”
The lyrics in Dylan’s “Hard Rain,” meanwhile, have touched off years of interpretive comment and analysis by all manner of critics, fans, Dylan lovers and Dylan detractors. A sampling of such opinion and critique in more recent times can be found online at various blogs and websites such as SongFacts.com, where a free-ranging conversation on this song and others is posted for all to see. Some comment from that site is sampled here below. In one post there, a writer named “jerrybear” of Flint, Michigan offers this interpretation, among others:
…The “white ladder all covered with water” could refer to the popular capitalist myth of the ladder of success that everyone is supposed to be able to climb if only they work hard enough, blah blah yadda yadda. Only some people may be so poor and beaten down that they cannot climb the ladder… For them the ladder is symbolically “covered with water” and no matter how hard they try to climb it they just keep slipping down….
Tim, of Charlotte, North Carolina, offers his view on another “Hard Rain” line: “‘I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’– I always thought this was a reference to the Billie Holiday song ‘Strange Fruit,’ which referred to the lynchings of black people in the South…” Bob of Boston has a different take on the same line:With Dylan’s work, like all poetry, “there are a myriad interpretations…” “I believe the line ‘I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’ is a reference to Dante’s Inferno where a group of sinners are doomed for eternity to be trapped in black trees. When Dante breaks one of the branches the tree bleeds and cries out…”
“This song is, indeed, about the threat of nuclear annihilation,”writes James of Wakefield, Massachusetts, citing the line, “the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world.” But James also adds: “that is far too simplistic an analysis. Bob Dylan’s work is as close as popular music ever came to approaching real poetry and, like all poetry, there are a myriad interpretations. Some of the themes addressed in this work include the general injustice of the world, the unrealized ‘better society’ (‘a highway of diamonds with nobody on it’), the guilt and fear in leaving a dangerous and damaged world to the next generation (‘I saw a new-born baby with wild wolves all around it’),…the artist’s fear of ‘shouting in the wilderness,’ and so on…”Still others mentioned that a cover version of “Hard Rain” by Edie Brickell that is heard on the soundtrack of the 1989 Vietnam-era film, Born on the Fourth of July, was also quite moving for them. ” …I love the song,” wrote “James” of Boerne, Texas. “It really made the movie, Born on the Fourth of July, for me. I know that this song has been used in many tribute videos to honor our service men and women.” Born on the Fourth of July, directed by Oliver Stone and starring Tom Cruise as Ron Kovic, the all-American boy who is paralyzed during combat in Vietnam and becomes an antiwar activist on his return to America, was nominated for eight academy awards.
Another writer suggested that the highway-of-diamonds line “referred to the carbon in asphalt converted to diamond under intense (nuclear) heat.” Amanda, from Fayetteville, Arkansas wrote: “I believe the line about the woman whose body was burning is in reference to Joan of Arc, and the young girl who gave him a rainbow is Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. Just my opinion.” And Mark from Washington, D.C. called Dylan “an empath, channeling the late 50′s and early 60′s mood and culture into lyrics.” These, of course, are only a small sampling of opinion and interpretation on Dylan’s song from one website.
In 1969, photographer Mark Edwards hit upon the idea of trying to compile photographs to illustrate each line of the Dylan’s “Hard Rain” song. In May 2006, an exhibition of Edwards’ photos, following up on this idea, began to be shown at various venues around the world, followed by a book titled, Hard Rain: Our Headlong Collision with Nature. This work offers photographic images to help illustrate the “sad forests” and “dead oceans” that Dylan’s tune invoked, as well as the places “where the people are many and their hands are all empty” – and more. Edwards’ intention was to highlight and go beyond many of interconnected problems that Dylan alluded to with his musical imagery – environmental degradation, poverty, the wasteful use of resources, and more. The exhibition has been seen by some 15 million people at over 100 venues. Similar work continues today with the Hard Rain Project and subsequent photographs and exhibition to help illustrate solutions to the problems highlighted in “Hard Rain.”
Bob Dylan, too, has used his song for some environmental-related work. In 2008 he recorded a new version of “Hard Rain” exclusively for Expo Zaragoza 2008 – a World’s fair focused on water resource issues and sustainable development. Zaragoza is the capital city of the Zaragoza Province of Spain and the autonomous community of Aragon. Zaragoza hosted Expo 2008.
Dylan also chose a local-band, Amaral, to record a version of the song in Spanish. The new version of “Hard Rain” ended with a brief Dylan comment that he was “proud to be a part of the mission to make water safe and clean…”
Handwritten LyricsIn 2009, an on-line auction site, Gotta Have Rock and Roll.com, obtained some of Bob Dylan’s handwritten lyrics for the song “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall.” According to the website, these working lyrics were given to Dylan’s long-time friend Peter McKenzie by Dylan’s first manager, Kevin Krown. The website also had a signed and dated letter from forensic document examiner, James A. Blanco, giving his opinion that the writing was Dylan’s. Described by the site as “an incredible rock and roll artifact showing the working of Dylan’s mind as he worked out the lyrics to this classic song, ” the item went up for bid in August 2009 with an estimated value of $30,000-$40,000. On August, 6th 2009, after 11 bids, the handwritten lyrics were sold for $51,363.60.
Since then, additional handwritten lyrics of Dylan’s have gone to the auction block, with collectors bidding even higher amounts. Dylan‘s handwritten lyrics to “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” with most of the verses appearing on a weathered sheet of ruled paper — which also included Dylan’s lyrics for “North Country Blues” on the back — sold at an auction for $422,500, according to a Sotheby’s representative. The winning bidder in this case was Adam Sender, identified as an American collector and a hedge fund trader. Mr. Sender also owns the guitar that John Lennon was using when he met Paul McCartney. Sotheby’s was “banking on there being a rich person out there who came of age in the 1960s for whom this [Dylan’s lyrics] would mean a great deal,” said Sean Wilentz, a history professor at Princeton University and author of Bob Dylan in America.The two sets of hand-written Dylan lyrics originate from a batch of documents that have been described as “The MacKenzie-Krown Papers,” according to Dylan historian Clinton Heylin. Eve and Mac MacKenzie and Kevin Krown were friends of Dylan’s during his early New York years. Together, they came to possess a number of Dylan’s early songs — some handwritten, some typed out with chords. Kevin Krown, also a folk singer in the those years, introduced Dylan to the New York music scene in 1960, and the two became friends. Krown came to have a number of Dylan’s lyrics sheets. After Krown’s death in the 1990s, the lyrics were given to Eve and Peter MacKenzie, in whose New York apartment Dylan sometimes stayed and composed music. The handwrittten notes for “The Times They Are-A Changin’” were first sold by the MacKenzies’ son, Peter, about 10 years ago to a private collector.
Bob Dylan’s musical cannon, meanwhile, continues to be heard and played around the world. To date, his “Hard Rain,” for example, has more than two dozen cover versions, including those by Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Leon Russell, Bryan Ferry, Robert Plant, Jimmy Cliff, and others. As a songwriter and musician, Dylan has received numerous awards over the years including Grammy, Golden Globe, and Academy Awards; he has also been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. He is considered to be one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century and has produced 34 studio albums, 13 live albums, and 14 compilation albums. Seven of his albums were No. 1 hits on the U.K. album charts; five topped the charts in U.S. In 2008, the Pulitzer Prize jury awarded him a special citation for “his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.”
See also at this website, “…Only A Pawn in Their Game,”another story of Dylan’s protest music from the early 1960s. Additional stories on music at this website may be found at the Annals of Music category page, or go to the Home Page for other story choices. Thanks for visiting — and please consider supporting this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle
Date Posted: 6 March 2012
Last Update: 29 May 2012
Comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jack Doyle, “Dylan’s Hard Rain, 1962-1963,”
PopHistoryDig.com, March 6, 2012.
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