A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall



One couplet makes all the difference.

Despite what Nat Hentoff claims in the liner notes for Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the singer wrote A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall in the summer of 1962 – well before the Cuban Missile Crisis erupted in October of that year. Indeed, Hentoff’s claim that the song is a reaction to that crisis is demonstrably false as Dylan performed it on stage for the first time on September 22, 1962.

That performance, part of a hootenanny organized by Pete Seeger, is a fascinating one. Dylan performed all five verses of the song that runs over seven minutes (apparently each of the performers was given only ten minutes of stage time, something that he violated) with some slight variations to the lyrics as they were recorded and are regularly performed. Some of these may be simple errors that come from singing a lengthy song in public for the first time. Dylan says that he has climbed to the “top of six misty mountains” rather than to the “side of twelve”. In the third verse he regularly uses the verb “saw” rather than “heard”. In the final verse he sings “dark forest” rather than “black forest”. As I say, minor stuff.

There are two big differences between the Carnegie Hall performance and the final version of the song. In the third verse, he adds a final line that eventually disappears: “I heard the sound of a one person who cried and was human”. It’s a nice line, but it doesn’t add a whole lot to the verse, and, indeed, seems slightly redundant. The line appears on the version of the song he recorded for the Witmark Demos, but it is gone from Freewheelin’.

The more significant difference, and one that has a huge impact, is the change to the first two lines of every verse. Dylan asks in the first verse: “Oh where have you been, my blue-eyed boy? Oh, where have you been, my baby, my own?”. This is a striking alteration from the familiar version which rhymes “blue-eyed son” with “darling young one”. It’s jarring, not simply because it is unfamiliar, but because the elegance of the rhyming couplet is absent. Dylan seems to have recognized this quickly, as it is only at Carnegie Hall that he seems to have sung it this way – by the time of the Witmark Demo recording it has reached the final version.

The extra line and the change to “son” are interesting examples of Dylan editing his work, and you can see the song evolve over a number of recordings before it crystallizes. In the 1970s (and later) Dylan would begin to tamper dramatically with the structure of his songs (compare this version with the one from the Rolling Thunder tour show at the Montreal Forum that can be found on Bootleg Series 5, which is the most uptempo and fun apocalyptic vision of all time (well, except maybe REM. And Timbuk 3)).

A Hard Rain is my favourite song from Freewheelin’. Unlike Blowin’ in the Wind, there is a lot that can be done with it (again, the Montreal show is a great example of this). Lyrically it’s a remarkably complex song, full of starkly dramatic imagery. A great deal has been made of interpreting Dylan’s symbolism (he does this himself during his 1963 interview with Studs Terkel, telling him that “pellets of poison” are the lies of the news media), which, as a professor of English literature I should probably endorse. But I don’t. I like the song’s images as images and have no desire to nail them down. And more to the point I love the way that Dylan wails “haaaard” on this one like a primal scream. Blowin’ in the Wind is the song that has the simplicity to speak to millions, but I prefer Hard Rain for its ability to show us Dylan in full-on poetic mode, channeling the symbolists. In time this tendency will overwhelm him, but in 1963 it was all so fresh and powerful.

Folk Concert Etiquette



The best thing that I have discovered on this project to date, by a wide margin, is Dylan’s concert at Town Hall on April 12, 1963. A remarkably high quality recording of a tremendously good show, I’ve listened to this one three days in a row. A two set show featuring two dozen songs, and one poetry recital, this deserves an official release in the US (most of it was released in Europe on Bob Dylan 50th Anniversary Collection: 1963, and some of it shows up on the Bootleg Series – including two songs in Scorsese’s No Direction Home).

That’s not what I keep noting though. What I keep noting is the way the audience expresses their love for young Mr. Dylan.

Most obviously, there is the explosive, deep, sustained appreciative applause. These people (Robert Shelton claims an attendance of 900 in a 1200 seat venue) are listening hard, and reacting harder. It is the first “big” Dylan show (and the first where he performed mostly his own songs), and the difference from the clubs (which often sounded as if there were ten people there) is noteworthy.

The second thing that I noticed is the rude fans. Men mostly (okay, men exclusively), their job is to tell Dylan how to do his job. They yell out the names of his older (and newer) songs, demanding them as if he were a jukebox or a trained monkey. At one point Dylan denies a request for Hard Rain, only to play it later (heading into the break – a great way to end the first set). Someone calls for it in the middle of Dylan doing his stage patter, clearly throwing him off (though he recovers beautifully, and wittily). At another time he does accede to a request for Prett Peggy-o. I’m pretty sure that this was politeness, since he’s not doing other traditional songs in his set. He also introduces it by asking somewhat incredulously “You really want to hear that?”.

Third, and most oddly, there are the fans who try to control the rude fans. The Town Hall show has an inordinate amount if shushing. People in the audience call out to Dylan and others (mostly women) quickly shush them. It seems at first to be a reaction to the rudeness but, more importantly, it seems to suggest a crowd that has a strong desire not to miss a single moment, a single aside, even the tuning of a guitar string.

Personally, I hate the song-callers at shows. The best response I’ve ever heard to one came from Billy Bragg, who, denying a request for something or other, said: “That’s easy for you, mate. You just have to remember the title. I have to remember the words, the chords, and the witty banter that introduces it. Which is another way of saying you’re out of luck”.

In a couple of years – at Newport, in Manchester – Dylan will get the rudest of song callers. But that would be getting ahead if myself.

The shushers on the other hand are my kind of people – I’m trying not to miss a moment either.

But here you go, song-caller, wherever you are, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall at the end of the first set:

Blowin’ in the Wind



Three verses made bob Dylan a superstar.

Written in 1962, Blowin’ in the Wind initially had only two verses. The third (“How many years can a mountain exist…”) was inserted into the middle of the other two. It’s the key verse, the one that ties it to the civil rights movement and the one that helped make Dylan the ‘voice of a generation’. Only a semi-protest song (the questioning rhetorical strategy broadens the appeal by expanding its focus to be too all-inclusive to be properly termed ‘protest’), it is a genuine anthem of the decade that produced it, and it was transformative.

Some sources indicate that Pete Seeger was the first to perform it live, learning the words and lyrics from Dylan backstage in a New York club before showcasing it for the crowd. It was first recorded by The Chad Mitchell Trio but their record company balked at releasing it. When it was snapped up by Peter, Paul and Mary it became a smash hit, selling three hundred thousand copies in its first week of release. Voice of a generation, indeed.

According to my iTunes playlist, I have fifty-one different versions of this song on my phone (many are live versions by Dylan, who has performed it live in concert – according to his website – an astounding 1,190 times). I have to say, it’s not a favorite of mine. It’s groundbreaking, yes, even era-defining, but also a little too dull for me. It’s one of his least variable songs as it only works well in a limited set of tempos and arrangements. I’ve always liked Joan Baez’s versions – it suits her well.

According to Robert Shelton, Blowin’ was a key part of Albert Grossman’s strategy to build the Dylan brand. Grossman also managed Peter, Paul and Mary and his goal for 1963 was big hit, strong word of mouth for Dylan as a songwriter from established folk performers like Seeger and Baez, and a big push at the Newport Folk Festival, where Baez had made her name in 1959. Blowin’ helped both Grossman and Dylan achieve their goals.

The song owes a musical debt to “No More Auction Block For Me”, and it was the subject of a false plagiarism claim that dogged Dylan for a few years, although his subsequent songwriting demonstrated that he had no need to rip off anyone.

As I say, not one of my favourites, but I do like this live version from 1963 – one of Dylan’s earliest television appearances.