A Hard Rain, Lord Randall, and the Start of a Revolution

In singer Dave Van Ronk’s memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, he tells about his experiences playing music in New York City in the 1960s and of those he encountered.  He also writes fondly of his memories of the young Bob Dylan.

Writing about Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” Van Ronk notes that he does not love all the lyrics. He reveals that the phrase “clown who cried in the alley” reminds him of a velvet painting.

But Van Ronk concludes that the overall effect of the song is “incredible.” He also explains that the tune comes from an old Anglo-Scottish Ballad.

“Lord Randall”

The English Ballad “Lord Randall” opens with similar a structure that Dylan would emulate in “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” with the singer asking questions and then responding with answers. The song begins, ““O where ha you been, Lord Randal, my son? / And where ha you been, my handsome young man?” Sound familiar?

Like Dylan’s song, “Lord Randall” is melancholy in both sound and theme. The ballad recounts a tragic love story. Lord Randall sings of a broken heart, and by the end of the song we learn that he is dying because his lover has poisoned him. Here is a performance of “Lord Randall” by UK artists Vicki Swan and Jonny Dyer at The High Barn on February 2013.

“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”

In Keys to the Rain: The Definitive Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, Oliver Trager describes Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” as “”[a]s stark a piece of apocalyptic visionary prophesy as anything ever committed” to any media. It was unlike anything else Dylan had written up that time.

Dylan’s song features a conversation between a father and a son, with alternating descriptions of life and death. Some believe that Dylan started writing the surrealistic poem during the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

In the liner notes to The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan though, Dylan explained that each line starts a whole new song.  He remembered: “[W]hen I wrote it, I thought I wouldn’t have enough time alive to write all these songs so I put all I could into one.”

Trager finds some “brightness” among the dark images of the song, including the final stanza when the narrator claims he will “tell it and speak it and breathe it/ And reflect from the mountains so all souls can see it.” It is an ending of defiance in the face of the darkness.

Here is Bob Dylan’s singing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” from a 1963 performance at Town Hall.

I have always loved the song and found it powerful, but I cannot even imagine what it must have been like to hear it in the early 1960s coming from Dylan standing on stage in a club. When Van Ronk first heard Dylan sing it at the Gaslight, he writes, “I could not even talk about it; I just had to leave the club and walk around for awhile. It was unlike anything that had come before it, and it was clearly the beginning of a revolution.”

Do you agree that Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” is incredible? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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