A Hard Rain


So Bob Dylan won this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. There’s been a lot of controversy about whether a songwriter is really a creator of literature, but I’d argue that there have been maybe three or four artists who have consistently written lyrics that are worthy of being classified as literature, and of those, only Dylan would qualify for consideration of a Nobel Prize.

Dylan has long been a personal hero of mine.  Above all, it’s his songwriting and his performances that I’ve admired so much.  I’ve also admired his eccentricities, his I don’t give a fuck if you think I can’t sing or I’m weird or whatever.  Dylan has always done what Dylan wants to do, and he’s remained relevant and vital and enigmatic for more than fifty years now.

Dylan didn’t attend the Nobel conference, but he did pass along a warmly worded note expressing his respect for the institution and his sense of honor for winning.  Best of all, they got the great Patti Smith to perform “Hard Rain” on his behalf.

It was the perfect selection of singer and song.  “Hard Rain” is even more relevant now than it’s always been before, given Donald Trump and the threatening cloud of nationalism that is advancing across the world.  The horrors of Syria and the atrocities occurring in the Philippines along with tumult in Gambia and the specter of Russian aggression all portend the eruption of those dark clouds into maybe the hardest rain the world has ever seen.  And even when Smith bungled a couple of lines in the middle of the performance and admitted her nervousness, it seemed right, that even a poet and songwriter and singer as great and formidable as Smith could be humbled in the presence of Dylan’s work.  That she recovered and was still able to get to the emotional core of the song is testament to the greatness of both artists.

“Hard Rain” is Dylan as prophet.  In the song, the singer’s “blue-eyed son” has returned from a long journey that can only be interpreted as a trip into the future.  He describes the sights and sounds and the people he encountered there as nothing short of apocalyptic.  In the first verse, he describes the physical landscape in terms that become increasingly horrific, culminating in “dead oceans” and “ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard.”

Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son
And where have you been, my darling young one
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
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

The second verse describes the people and cultures that dominate, and again, the images are so clear and concise and horrific. From a “newborn baby with wild wolves all around it” to “a black branch with blood that kept dripping,” there’s a sense of abandonment and isolation. Nearly fifty years before Sandy Hook, Dylan wrote about what at the time would have been unthinkable:  “Guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children.” And the “ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken” seems accurate, too, as there is so much hysterical and vitriolic and ineffective talk from both sides but no real communication.

Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son
And 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
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Then he describes what he heard.  Note that as the verse goes on, the sounds become quieter and more personal, ranging from the roars of thunder and tidal waves to the cry from an alley.  This apocalypse is more than the death and destruction of the masses, it is also the end of individualism.

And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son?
And what did you hear, my darling young one?
I heard the sound of a thunder that roared out a warnin’
Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world
Heard one hundred drummers whose hands were a-blazin’
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
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

The next verse is the most conflicted, as the dark imagery (“a young child beside a dead pony”) is somewhat balanced by shred of hope and beauty (the young girl who gave him a rainbow.) He meets two wounded men, one “wounded in love,” one “wounded with hatred.” This is the line in the song that I have the most trouble interpreting.  It’s also one of my favorite lines.  Is he saying that in the end, love and hate are equal in their ability to inflict hurt?

Oh, what did you meet, my blue-eyed son?
Who did you meet, my darling young one?
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
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

And finally, what is the prophet to do with the knowledge he gained from his journey?  He’s “going back out before the rain starts falling” to “tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it.”  This last verse is incredibly powerful and beautiful.

And what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
And 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
And the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, 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

 I don’t know how anybody could deny that “Hard Rain” is literature.  The raw beauty and power and emotion captured in these words are undeniably great.  “Hard Rain” highlights the humanity, the unshakable integrity and profound genius of a true prophet.

Ever since the election in November, I’ve been unable to express the feelings of overwhelming dread and loss that I’ve been experiencing. Believe me, I get no pleasure in being right about things that are so wrong, and if I am proven wrong about how bad I think things are going to get, I’ll be unapologetically glad. I’ve been looking for something to describe what I’m feeling and fearing, and have been unable to articulate it. Then I returned to “Hard Rain,” and realized that it perfectly summed up what was going on in my head and my heart. And this is what great literature has done for me time and time again.  Whether it was “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” by Carson McCullers or “Big Two Hearted River” by Ernest Hemingway or “Two Soldiers” by William Faulkner, it’s shone a light into the darkest recesses of my soul and helped me walk out. More than anything, it’s made me realize I am not alone.

Congratulations, Bob Dylan, Nobel Prize winner.  You know your song well, and thanks to your amazing gift, so do I.

 

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One thought on “A Hard Rain

  1. Thank you for bringing the poet and prophet to light. Regardless of whether the future of mankind is hard rain or rainbows Dylan portrays the depths of what we can feel and fear foreboding in current events. Your presentation of Dylan is a light on his words and will play in my head. Thank you.

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