The 30 Greatest Bob Dylan Songs: #7, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”

Written by May 1st, 2009 at 1:30 pm

“Oh where have you been, my blue eyed son?”

While those words are standard folk fare, they are now forever associated with Bob Dylan.

His answer?

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

…which ultimately is more powerful than the “Lord Randall” version, the folk song/poem from which the opening question is taken:

I’ve been with my sweetheart, mother make my bed soon
For I’m sick to the heart and I fain would lie down.

Like the songs of the troubadours of old, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” reports on the state of the world at large, and vows to keep singing until something is done about it. Released in 1963, the song announced to the world that Dylan was more than just the guy who wrote indelible songs like “Blowin’ In the Wind.” He also wrote EPIC songs — when everybody else in popular music was writing 3 minute songs, he upped the ante to 6:55, making Bob Dylan the first prog-rocker.

“Hard Rain” is one of those Dylan tunes that begged to be compared to poetry. The song is like a road trip for the mind, with its cascading imagery and shimmering power. It’s largely a laundry list of bad news, but it’s more about life itself than just life’s darkest corners.  It’s also a precursor to the vast surrealist imagery Dylan would offer in songs like “Desolation Row” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.”  While the clown cries in the alley, girls offer rainbows, a white man walks beside a black dog, the executioner’s face is hidden, and ten thousand whisper but nobody listens. The “hard rain” in the chorus threatens to wash it all away, all of humanities’ follies and tender accomplishments. It’s verses offer elaborate metaphors for the state of the union in 1963, but they’re vague enough to feel prophetic for every year that’s followed. “Hard Rain is a desperate kind of song,” Dylan says in the liner notes to Freewheelin’:

It was written during the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 when those who allowed themselves to think of the impossible results of the Kennedy-Khrushchev confrontation were chilled by the imminence of oblivion. “Every line in it,” says Dylan, “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 would revive the song as an electric rave up on the Rolling Thunder tour in the mid-70s, and named his 1976 live album Hard Rain (which paradoxically does not include the song.) In the 1989 anti-war movie Born on the 4th of July, Edie Brickell (Paul Simon’s future bride) performs “Hard Rain” as a 1960′s cofeehouse singer.

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’…

If every line in “Hard Rain” is indeed the start of a whole new song, then it’s fair to say that every songwriter who carries Dylan’s music in his heart has been busy writing them.

  • Kevin

    This one is a no-brainer. One of the best poems ever written.

    It’s number 2 on my own personal list.

  • Srivatsan

    Yes. Epic. Irresistably powerful. Great song.

  • Brad

    I, personally, don’t see how Dylan at his most childish and pretentious shows him at his best. While there are things to like about the song, they are overshadowed by his lofty tone and lack of depth. Each line does seem like the start of a new song – in that no line is developed. Good poetry develops. Dylan’s written good poems. This is not one.

    People make mention of the young Dylan wanting to sound older than he is, and this song serves as one of the worst examples.

  • Kevin

    REally Brad?

  • Brad

    If someone explained to me the song’s actual merit as a good poem, I might change my mind.

    I doubt you’ll be able. The song lacks depth, because Dylan never expounds on any of the images. The imagery is good enough. It just lacks the meaning necessary to justify the song’s tone.

  • Srivatsan

    Brad, there are different styles to poetry .. may be you dont dig this style too much. As a general rule, trying to rationalize a work of art to enjoy it makes little sense. In any case, to me, this song is just as rich in meaning and depth, as it is in imagery and word power. Dylan’s delivery is razer sharp and there is room to interpret the song in different contexts, giving it a sort of timeless quality that is rare in popular music.

  • Not Brad Thank God

    I never thought I’d say this to a fellow Dylan fan, but…..you need to stop talking about Dylan, Brad.

  • Evan Schlansky

    Me, I enjoy reading Brad’s thoughts.

  • Brad

    I like reading your thoughts, too, Mr. Schlansky. I hope that’s obvious, as I’ve followed this series from the beginning.

    Of course, no Dylan fan is going to agree on the merit of periods and specific songs within periods. I’m a big fan of THE GENUINE BASEMENT TAPES, JWH, and NEW MORNING. For me, they capture Dylan at his most succinct. That said, I also like-to-love each of his albums from ’64 through ’66 and a great deal of his 70′s output.

    My point is that we seem to value different things in Dylan. When I’m “critical” of a selection, it’s only me calling it as I see it.

    While you have picks I would have left off, you also have picks I would have included that I think many would not. Picking a top 30 from Dylan is daunting, and I think you’re doing a fine job.

  • Kevin

    Brad- I have no problem with your comments about this selection I just thought it was unusual. I thought it was a consensus song but of course that is impossible. Interesting to read your comments!

    As for the periods you describe I am a Blood on the Tracks, Desire, Rolling thunder revue guy. At least at this point in my life.

  • Brad

    I think of BLOOD ON THE TRACKS to be most similar to JOHN WESLEY HARDING in that they are both albums of crisis (relational and spiritual respectively). Each album’s minimalist approach is fitting in the face of this understanding.

    BLOOD ON THE TRACKS is the one Dylan album upon which I can NEVER come to a solid conclusion. I guess the closest thing to a conclusion would be this: I respect it more than I enjoy it. It’s as dense with great songs as any of his albums. Something about the sound quality, though, feels unfinished in two of the songs: ‘You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome’ and ‘The Jack of Hearts.’ My feelings toward DESIRE are pretty much the opposite. The sound is amazing, but not all the lyrics show him at his highest level – probably because of his collaboration coupled with his focus on the sound.

    I’d still consider BLOOD ON THE TRACKS to be a brilliant album, and I still consider DESIRE to be a very good album with brilliant moments.

  • Kevin Moore

    I would agree with that mostly however I always compare New Morning with Blood on the tracks. not because they are musically the same but they are amazing contrasts.

    In New Morning the tone couldn’t be happier and it is obviously celebrating love through most of the album, and than BAM Blood on the tracks hits it hard!

    I agree with desire some of it could be lyrically stronger but I think it is the best sounding album with the best combination of musicians and instruments. Who knew a harmonica and violin could work so well together?

    Also it may be futile but i am still pushing for Shelter from the storm to sneak in the top 6.

  • Not Brad Thank God

    I’ve been completely fine with all of Brad’s comments on every other song, and he’s brought a lot to the comments section. And with his subsequent comments regarding how different Dylan fans like different Dylan things, and how we view it. He has made and no doubt will continue to make very good comments.

    That said, calling Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall “childish” and “pretentious” was too much for me. I apologize for the tone and harshness of my earlier comment…but I stand by it.

    The progression of this song, the last verse, and everything in between is Dylan at the height of his genius.

  • Ben

    Desire and the re-recorded songs from Blood on the Tracks were a turning pointing in Dylan’s music, for me.

    Since the motorcycle crash his songwriting may have lost its layered complexity, but it was more relaxed, warmly acoustic, and fun, as evidenced by John Wesley Harding, the new songs for Greatest Hits Vol II, and his appearance at The Concert For Bangladesh.

    It was an enjoyable era in his career for me, and it was climaxed by Blood on the Tracks’ vivid poetry and never-before-heard-of emotional directness. When he redid half of those tracks in Memphis, he had gotten louder and more bombastic. Not that that’s a bad thing; it made Blood a more complex album. But the NY sessions were more for me.

    Desire took another step forward to grandiosity, and it was great, but it was the last Dylan album (before Time Out of Mind) that I really cared for. I was never big on The Rolling Thunder Revue.

  • Ben

    *Minneapolis, sorry

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003406095180 Mustapha

    It’s more of an historical docmuent than a rousing introduction to the greatest songwriter of all time. It certainly can’t compare to the Beatles first album. It’s the perfect intro album for the artist who changed it all. Melds all the strains of American music. Gospel, blues, touch of country (Acuff), the major celtic connection (Maid of Fife, a scottish air made popular by the Clancy Bros and Tommy Makem all over the Irish cityscapes).Dylan was a genius, not just for his art, but for recognizing his commercial potential every step of the way. He wanted to be Elvis and he became so much more.

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