4

I've become interested in Bob Dylan's song "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall", which I find perplexing and hard to make sense of. Looking at the lyrics, it seems that there is quite a bit of ambiguity as to how the song should be interpreted. Here's the first verse:

Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, 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
And it's a hard rain's a-gonna fall

From reading the lyrics I can't figure out if the song is meant to be sad or uplifting. On one hand, a lot of the imagery connotes death and misery, such as "a dozen dead ocean" and "seven sad forests". And end end of a verse--"a hard rain's a-gonna fall"--seems ominous, almost like a warning of a coming storm. However, the song also seems to be about the reunification of a parent and his son: the parent is asking where the son was, and the son responds with a description of his travels.

The final verse adds to this ambiguity. The son informs the parent that they are leaving again ("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'"). This could be considered as sad--they are departing--but also a good thing--the son is continuing with his travels. In addition, the son informs that they expect to drown in the rising water--sad--but that they know their song and will sing it as they drown--defiant, inspiring, and perhaps an uplifting conclusion.

Dylan's performances of the song only add to this ambiguity. In one of his latest renditions of the song, he is accompanied by an orchestra, and the music is similar to an inspiring, uplifting soundtrack that would be played at the end of a movie. In another version from 1963, Dylan is accompanied by only an acoustic guitar, and his voice has the characteristic mournful quality that I associate with his music. And in a third version from his 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue, the song sounds like a bar song: mournful but funny and entertaining at the same time.

So my question is: is the song supposed to be mournful or uplifting? What accounts for the range of interpretations of the song, both from a close reading of the lyrics, and from the various ways that Dylan has performed the song throughout his career.

  • 3
    Out of curiosity, who downvoted this and why? It seems like a perfectly reasonable question to me. – EJoshuaS Sep 3 '17 at 4:34
  • 1
    FWIW, a melody that sounds uplifting/cheerful/happy doesn't always mean it. Take an example of Rhythm of the Rain that has only a few minor chords and happy melody overall, but the lyric doesn't sound that happy. I also have heard some modern pop songs that sound very happy but have dark/sad lyric nowadays. Also, this is a branch of psychoacoustics. Just my 2 cents~ – Andrew T. Sep 3 '17 at 14:37
  • 2
    @AndrewT. the relationship between lyrics and music is absolutely something I want to learn more about. I hope answers can shed some insight. – user111 Sep 3 '17 at 14:54
  • Another classic anti-war/protest song of the times (1965) is "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag" by Country Joe McDonald. The music and rhythms are very upbeat. I think the most interesting line, from the standpoint of lyrics vs. music, is "Whoopie! We're all gonna die!" (I'm just adding another piece of the puzzle). – Vekzhivi Sep 14 '17 at 12:28
3
+25

“A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall” is, undoubtedly, one of Dylan’s best songs, and in fact it was the song that Patti Smith performed during the Nobel prize ceremony last year. Before I attempt an answer let me provide some context first. The reference for what follows is the book “Bob Dylan - All The Songs: The story behind every track” by P. Margotin and J. Gueson.

“A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” was written in the summer of 1962, at the peak of the Cold War and just before the events that lead to the Cuban Missile Crisis. The song has has been associated with this historical episode, and in fact most people believe that the song was written as a response to the crisis (October 1962). In the liner notes to Dylan’s second album “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”, which contains the song, it is written:

"Hard Rain," adds Dylan, "is a desperate kind of song." 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."

But in fact the song must have been written earlier, since (a version of) it was first performed in public by Dylan in September 22, 1962, during a hootenany organised by Pete Seeger (a notable folk musician) at Carnegie Hall.

(A recording of that performance is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2WbcFrS-tX8)

The structure of the song -as a dialogue between a mother and a son who is coming back home- and the melody itself are borrowed from the Scottish folk ballad “Lord Randall” that dates back to the 17th century.

(A version of the ballad can be found here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L2I6aRh9LOQ)

It is my impression that the melody of the original "Lord Randall” is sad and mournful (others may judge differently), Dylan adaptation sounds slightly more uplifting but I think (and the reference above shows) that his intention was definitely to write a powerful protest song, almost like a prophetic vision of sorts, reflecting the fear of a human-provoked apocalyptic event.

Finally, let me add a couple of lines by Dylan himself also taken from the liner notes to "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan” (and don’t forget that he was 21 years old at the time). They were quite revealing for me and in a way may hint at what was his vision in his early songs and albums:

"The way I think about the blues," he says, "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. What's depressing today is that many young singers are trying to get inside the blues, forgetting that those older singers used them to get outside their troubles."

  • I think you're relying way too much on what Dylan said in this answer. Dylan is notorious for trolling people who have questions about the meaning of his songs. In one interview, when asked what his songs were about, he answered "about six or seven minutes, sometimes less." Nothing he says should be considered reliable. – user111 Sep 12 '17 at 23:26
  • 1
    @Hamlet Lack of reliability does not make a source irrelevant, though, especially when it's the only primary source. Going to be hard to answer this without referencing the artist at some point. Plus, while your observation is generally correct, the young Dylan seems to have been much less prone to this behaviour: certainly the factual nature of the sleeve notes of his early material, discussing the folk tradition, can be taken more at face value. – Matt Thrower Sep 13 '17 at 11:33
  • @MattThrower more to the point, we shouldn't be relying on what authors say, ever, unless we are able to verify that the meaning they say their work has is actually present in the work. See our conversations regarding authorial intent, e.g. literature.stackexchange.com/questions/2009/…. Bob Dylan is someone for whom this is particularly relevant, given how unreliable he has been. I of course strongly disagree with the claim that Dylan is valuable because he is a "primary source." – user111 Sep 13 '17 at 12:08
  • 1
    @Hamlet OK: my point was not that an author should be a sole source, merely that one should not disregard their voice as unhelpful. – Matt Thrower Sep 13 '17 at 12:45
  • @MattThrower my point isn't that quotes from the author should be ignored, but that when quotes from the author are used, care should be taken to verify that what the author is saying doesn't contradict other sources of information. I'm not convinced that this answer does a good job of verifying that what Dylan says about the meaning of the song is supported by the actual song itself. – user111 Sep 14 '17 at 0:31

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy