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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Hard Rain: Turning Apocalyptic Anxiety into a Musical Joke

The title of Bob Dylan’s 1963 album, Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan belies the serious and anxious songs that the album contains. The cover shows a 21 year old Dylan walking down the snowy streets of New York with Suze Rotolo.  They are smiling, spontaneous… freewheelin’. But still, the specter of war hangs over the album.  The fear of death and nuclear oblivion is heard in the songs “Masters of War,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “Talking World War III Blues.” Other songs on the record are less explicit about it but still deal with this fear of war and oblivion: “Let Me Die in my Footsteps” and, of course, the protest song that came to symbolize the 60s “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

The song “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” especially embodies this fear, expressing it in a gloomy, apocalyptic question and answer ballad.  Dylan wrote the song around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis and described it as a “desperate kind of song.”  According to the liner notes, the lines of the song are the first lines of songs that he feared he never have time to write, so he collapsed them all into this one.

But perhaps that oblivion felt less immanent by 1975 when Dylan embarked upon his Rolling Thunder Revue tour.  He hit the road with big names and excellent musicians for a musical extravaganza travelling around the world. The tour was well received by fans and by critics.  Much of it was recorded – both professionally, and bootlegged by fans.  A live album of recordings from this tour was finally released in 2002.

Dylan, who often reinterpreted himself and his music through the years – changing styles and altering lyrics, played a lot of the fan favorites during these shows, but changed them up.  He reinterpreted them. But I am less than impressed by his reinterpretation of “Hard Rain.”

He turned the brooding, anxious apocalypticism of the original song into an up-tempo, rollicking rock song. Dylan wrote the song when he was a “freewheelin’” young man without a “blue-eyed” son of his own.  I, who have my own darling blue eyed young ones, still fear for them and what they will see in this world.  While I’m not convinced that a doom-and-gloom attitude is appropriate (not all the time, anyway), I can’t see turning the song into a flippant, ironic joke as the way to go.  There’s too much at stake.

Oh, who 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.

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