- Bob Dylan
- 'It's A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall', revised typescript
- ink on paper
Clinton Heylin, Revolution in the Air: the Songs of Bob Dylan Vol. 1: 1957-1973 (2009)
Christopher Ricks, Dylan's Visions of Sin (2001)
THIS TYPESCRIPT, WHICH WAS PROBABLY WRITTEN ABOVE THE LEGENDARY GASLIGHT FOLK CLUB, IS A HIGHLY IMPORTANT EARLY WORKING DRAFT OF THE SONG THAT FIRST REVEALED DYLAN'S POETIC AMBITIONS AS A SONGWRITER.
The key works of Dylan’s canon have invited debate for decades - deciphering sources and meaning is a long-running critical game - but there is a consensus that 'A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall' 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 ambitious writing 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 pretence that he was just a worried man with a worried mind and grabbed hold of word that has haunted him ever since – poet" (Clinton Heylin).
It was the Greenwich Village folk scene that provided the environment which enabled Dylan to stretch his imagination in these new and startling ways, and this draft comes from the heart of that scene. The folksinger Tom Paxton recalls the origins of the 'Hard Rain':
"There was a hide-out room above The Gaslight where we could hang out. Once Dylan was banging out this long poem on Wavy Gravy's typewriter. He showed me the poem 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?'" (quoted in Heylin, p.114).
Wavy Gravy has given numerous interviews recounting song's origins that tally with Paxton's. In 1962 he was still known by his birth-name, Hugh Romney, and was helping to run The Gaslight as its poetry director, so this "hide-out" room was nominally his office. Given the provenance of this typescript (see below) it is undoubtedly connected to the Gaslight text seen by Paxton; it is probably a draft that Dylan discarded whilst working in Romney's room. This typescript, neatly typed and with a careful assignation of authorship, is very unlikely to have been intended as a working draft - it is much more likely to have been produced as a fair copy to be shown to others on the folk scene, such as Paxton. However it is typical of Dylan's restless spirit that he almost immediately began revising his work. As the final manuscript of the song reveals, 'Hard Rain' continued to be revised right up to the moment of recording, and the first published text of the song (Sing Out!, vol. 12, no. 5 (December 1962), p.22) includes a line that Dylan at the last minute decided to omit from the recorded song. It is also noteworthy that Paxton recalls that Dylan described the version he saw as a poem, not a song, and Dylan's own comments on the song's origin also suggest that it began life as a poem. The current draft is less lyrical than the final version, for example the third and fourth lines don't fit the song's melody, but the authorship line clearly attributes "Words-Music" to Dylan, so it was clearly, at this stage, intended to be sung.
This draft is a fascinating insight into Dylan's creative processes as it reveals the song as it begins to take its final shape. Dylan's template for 'Hard Rain' was a traditional British folk-ballad, 'Lord Randal', from which the song takes its basic question and answer structure and also something of its tone: "The song, like the predecessor ballad, takes poison, and it knows what impends: hell" (Ricks, p.331). By the time this text was typed up, Dylan had taken what he needed from 'Lord Randal'. The deepening vision of apocalypse is powerfully present and the overall structure of the song is also complete; the protagonist tells us in successive verses where he has been, what he has seen, who he has met, and what he will do.
Dylan's manuscript revisions to this typescript mostly focus on two key aspects of the song which are also where this draft differs most strongly from the final version. The first, and most obvious, is that the phrasing of the initial questions has not yet taken its familiar form, with the questioner instead asking:
"Where have you been, my blue eyed boy,
Where have you been, my darling, my son?"
Dylan was evidently not happy with this, as this draft shows him changing the end of the second line of each verse to "darling young son", bringing the song closer to its final form.
The second aspect of the song which Dylan continues to work on in his revisions to this draft, and which he was to continue to revise until the song was recorded, was its incredible succession of surreal images. The scope of Dylan's imagination and the fluidity of his writing are evident in the way that some eight lines containing powerful and ominous images are scattered around the margins of the typescript, scribbled down as they occurred to Dylan. These include strange and memorable evocations of doomsday that are familiar to listeners, such as "I been 10 thousand miles in a mouth of a graveyard" and "I heard 100 drummers whose hands were all blazing", as well as abandoned fragments like "I saw a black cat cross tails..." Images are also honed: the clown heard in the third verse "forever was crying" in the typescript text. Dylan then revised the line by hand to "stood backstage crying", and he then came back to the line for a third time when he was working on this typescript, and this third version of the line brings it to the (near) final reading of "cried in an alley".
There has naturally been much discussion of what 'Hard Rain' portends. Dylan himself has given typically inconsistent answers. He has claimed (and also denied) that it was written in response to the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it was performed at Carnegie Hall on 22 September 1962, some weeks before the crisis erupted, and was almost certainly sung at the Gas Light at an even earlier date. This draft, which surely precedes the Carnegie Hall performance, shows once and for all that the structure and theme were in place before nuclear war was suddenly an imminent possibility. In Chronicles Dylan recalls that he took as his inspiration for the song 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…"
As with any great work of art, 'Hard Rain' transcends its inspiration whatever that may have been. It sings of the dreadful allure of the promise of the end of days. Yet the song ends with an act of resilience, as the singer promises to continue with his song, "to tell it, and speak it, and think it, and breathe it". This draft, however, contains a final surprise in the final chorus, in which the threat or promise of coming "hard rain" is unexpectedly strengthened when the speaker's prophetic tone takes on a new moral imperative:
"And it's a hard,
It's a hard,
It's a hard rain must fall."
This unique document marks a key artistic breakthrough by probably the most respected and influential songwriter alive today. The current typescript is one of three known manuscripts of the poem, the others being an autograph lyric fragment among the Mackenzie-Krown papers now at the Morgan Library, and the final working manuscript (sold Sotheby's, New York, 24 June 2014, lot 141, $400,000).