(A letter of provenance from Dylan manager Jeff Rosen accompanies this lot)
Doggett, Peter. Are You Ready for the Country. New York, 2001
Dylan, Bob. Chronicles Volume 1. New York, 2004.
Heylin, Clinton. Revolution in the Air the Songs of Bob Dylan. 1957-1973. New York, 2009.
Marcus, Greil. Like a Rolling Stone Bob Dylan at the Crossroads. New York, 2005.
Polizzotti, Mark. Highway 61 Revisited. New York, 2013. [No. 35 33 1/3 Series].
Sounes, Howard. Down the Highway The Life of Bob Dylan. New York, 2011.
"The 70 Greatest Dylan Songs" rollingstone.com
“…Nothing in Dylan’s canon leads up to this example of wild mercury poetry…” (Heylin) PULL QUOTE
“I wrote it at the time of the Cuban crisis. I was in Bleecker Street in New York. We just hung around at night – people sat around wondering if it was the end, and so did I. Would one o’clock the next day ever come? …It was a song of desperation. What could we do? Could we control men on the verge of wiping us out? The words came fast, very fast. It was a song of terror. Line after line, trying to capture the feeling of nothingness. “ (Dylan, 1965 PULL QUOTE
The Birth of Dylan as Poet and Folk Prophet
Recorded in a single take on December 6, 1962 at CBS Studio A, ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ was released on his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. The lyrics in the present manuscript correspond exactly with those as recorded and later published in Writings and Drawings (1973).
While the present manuscript is the finished song, as with all of Dylan’s work, it is the result of much editing and revision. An earlier draft predating the present version, appeared in both Sing Out and Broadside folk magazines. That version contained somewhat less elegant lines including “a highway of golden with nobody on it” rather than the final lyric “a highway of diamonds” found here. (Scrawled in the margin of the present draft, the words “diamond desert” indicate that final imagery was still in flux right up to the recording session). Listening to the early recordings of the song on the Witmark demos, one hears another line at the end of the song’s third verse, “I heard the sound of one person that cried he was human” that didn’t make the final cut in the official Columbia sessions. This represents a very late edit, given that the demos were recorded a few days before the album’s version, with Dylan revising the apocalyptic imagery right up to the end, until he could record the song in a single take.
The key works of Dylan’s canon have invited debate for decades - deciphering sources and meaning is a long-running critical game - but with “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” there seems to be a consensus that it represents the first full blossom of Dylan as poet.
The song’s “lines of terror” aren’t the finger-pointing literal ballads of the folk movement, but the cascade of symbolist/surrealist images that would later introduce listeners to ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ and the bleak ‘Desolation Row.’ Such came as a shock to those expecting the second-coming of Woody Guthrie. “….nothing in Dylan’s canon leads up to this example of wild mercury poetry…. he abandoned any pretense that he was just a worried man with a worried mind and grabbed hold of word that has haunted him ever since –poet.” (Heylin)
Cambridge professor Christopher Ricks, scholar of T.S. Eliot, Beckett, Milton and Keats, bemoaned that ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ was “a hard song to befall the critic” as it “declines to be allegory… it means what it says” (while comparing Dylan’s “I saw a white ladder all covered with water” to T.S. Eliot’s “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree” ).
Dylan remarked in his Chronicles on realizing the need to go beyond just strumming other people’s songs and find a “template” to build on for his own writing. Here the template is the early Scottish ballad ‘Lord Randall’ whose repeated lines “O where ha you been, Lord Randall my son? / And where ha you been my handsome young man?” allow Dylan the basic structure to answer each time with his own dark symbolist imagery, example after example of what Ricks termed, “the sad variety of hell.”
The specter of mutually assured destruction loomed after the discovery of Russian missiles in Cuba, but that terrifying daily reality was only one tonal influence on the lyrics. (Dylan has naturally provided a wrinkle to to his own explanation of the song’s origins in this nuclear anxiety, remarking to Studs Terkel in 1963 that “It’s not atomic rain, it’s just hard rain. It’s not the fall out rain. It isn’t that at all. I just mean some sort of end that’s just gotta happen.”)
In Chronicles Dylan gives an account of taking as wider inspiration an earlier, weirder, but just as harrowing, America of the 19th century. While poring over microfiche newspapers in the New York Public Library he found a world of slavery, religious movements, riots and anti-immigration violence until, “After a while you become aware of nothing but a culture of feeling, of black days, of schism, evil for evil, the common destiny of the human being getting thrown off course. It’s all one long funeral song,….”
That “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” began its evolution as a “high abstract” poem, and not a song, is often quoted from the recollections of Wavy Gravy and singer Tom Paxton, the former recalling a version of the work being written on his typewriter in a folk club garret. Paxton’s account is similar, “Once Dylan was banging out this long poem on Wavy Gravy’s typewriter. He showed me the song and I asked, ‘Is this a song’ He said, ‘No, it’s a poem.’ I said, ‘All this work and you’re not going to add a melody?’”
Dylan recalled the songs original lack of structure in a 1964 interview with Melody Maker, also remarking, “I wrote the words of [‘Hard Rain’] on a piece of paper. But there was just no tune that really fit to it.”
A typed early draft with Wavy Gravy provenance is extant, a much earlier draft in which the opening query hews closely to the Scottish ballad. It is far from the final, finished lyrics as offered here and originally retained by the author, removed from his spiral bound reporter’s notebook. In Dylan biographer Clinton Heylin’s view, the present “may even be the ‘clean’ copy that Dylan used as a memorial aid when recording the song in the studio.”
But of course “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” was always going to be a song, given its origins in the earlier Scottish ballad. By the time Dylan was playing a version of it at The Gaslight (with others including Richie Havens performing covers around the Village) the acolytes in crowd were singing along, helping to carry the chorus, and Dylan had very much found the tune.
Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Edgar Allan Poe and “Have Mercy, Baby”
While the present draft represents the finished lyrics with a few possibilities of ultimately unrealized changes penciled alongside, it still retains the immediacy of a working manuscript, of being present for the artist’s inspiration in the extensive marginal notes.
Clinton Heylin, after examining this draft provides some interpretation of Dylan’s notes:
“The reference to ‘Betsy – Cambridge’ is fairly straightforward, Betsy Siggins being the owner of the Club 47 in Cambridge, also referred to above in reference to Joan Baez’s recording of ‘Black Is The Colour’, from which Dylan evidently took one of the images in the final verse (‘black is the colour and none is the number’). Slightly more cryptic is the song-title – ‘Notamun Town’(sic) – Dylan has jotted down below the line, ‘I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken’….. Ten thousand stood round me but I was alone is the line from ‘Nottamun Town’ that Dylan has adapted in sentiment and tone, though why this should prompt him to highlight his debt in the manuscript is more of a mystery. It is certainly a first.”
The words “Hiroshima” and “Nagasaki” appear underneath the phone number, GR5 7043, for a Bill Maxwell. Such a reference make clear that while the work’s genesis might predate the Cuban Missile crisis, the reality of nuclear destruction was nevertheless in the mix when the author took inspiration from his research into the calamities of the 19th.
Two other penciled references demonstrate the length of Dylan’s reach for inspiration. A few words from Poe’s The Black Cat, “solitary eye of fire” fit in well with general tone of horrific imagery he rolls out line by line on the page. But the list of three comic book heroes, two of them decidedly minor, “Miss Masque / Bullet Girl /Doctor Strange,” would likely need Dylan himself to explain. Perhaps they were just reminders of what to pick up from the newsstand on the way home from the studio.
For those searching for early indications of where Dylan the folk prophet might next follow his muse, another of the marginal notes provides an intriguing foreshadowing of his later electric transformation. “’Have Mercy Baby’ / The Dominoes” is noted and it’s a truly raucous 1952 R&B shouter. Though its roots were spiritual gospel, the delivery by The Dominoes is purely secular. A high energy early rock and roll single, it would likely shock any folkie at the time that this was on their prophet’s record player. Even this early, the musical wellspring Dylan drew from wasn’t just pure folk waters but the electrified current of the Mississippi Delta flowed through him as well. It would just be another three years before he made that abundantly clear with “Highway 61.”
One measure of true poetry or real song craft is the variety of interpretation that the work can stand. “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” has been covered dozens of times on record and countless more live, managing to escape its possible Kennedy vs. Kruschev origins to attain a wider and continued relevance. A quick review of websites and blogs demonstrate the most recent attempts to claim the work’s “message” don’t come from the perspective of the Cold War, but from the more literal rains and storms of climate change. Choose your apocalypse, it can handle them all.
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