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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    The Death of Emmett Till

    On January 24 in 1956, Look magazine published “The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi” that featured a confession from two men claiming they had murdered the teenage Emmett L. Till on August 28, 1955.  The killing would inspire both Bob Dylan and the Civil Rights movement.

    The Murder

    Jurors had acquitted the two white men, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, of the 1955 kidnapping and murder of Till. But after the acquittal, in the magazine article, Bryant and Milam described the killing.

    After beating and shooting Till, they used barbed wire to tie a heavy cotton gin fan around his neck to weigh down his body when they threw him in the Tallahatchie River.

    Throughout the ordeal, the two men could not break the spirit of the teenager.  Till maintained that he was as good as them and that he had dated white women.

    Emmett Till

    Till was a 14-year-old African-American teenager from Chicago.  Prior to his death, he was visiting Mississippi relatives in 1955.

    In Money, Mississippi, he went to Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market to buy some candy. Reportedly, while he was in the store, the teen either whistled at or requested a date from Carolyn Bryant, who ran the store with her husband Roy, who was out of town.

    As word spread around town about the incident, the husband Roy Bryant returned to town and contacted his half-brother J.W. Miliam. A few days after the encounter in the store between Till and Byrant’s wife, Miliam and Bryant abducted Till from his great-uncle’s home. Three days later Till’s body was found in the river.

    Response to the Murder

    Word of the horrible killing spread. Reportedly, 50,000 people attended the funeral, where Till’s mother had an open casket to show the world what was done to her son (warning: disturbing photo at link).

    Authorities arrested Miliam and Bryant, who were tried and acquitted by an all-white all-male jury. Many were outraged with the acquittal, and some credit the events with helping inspire the Civil Rights Movement.

    Miliam and Bryant later both died from cancer.  But as recently as 2005 the U.S. Justice Department was looking into the case about prosecuting others still living who helped with the crime.

    Bob Dylan’s “The Death of Emmett Till”

    The events also inspired a young Bob Dylan to write about the Till in the song “The Death of Emmett Till.” He performed the song on a radio program in 1962, explaining the tune came from a song by folk-musician Len Chandler.

    On the March 11, 1962 radio show, the host flattered the young Dylan’s skills.  But Dylan responded, “I just wrote that one about last week, I think.”

    Relatively consistent with Dylan’s comments, in Keys to the Rain: The Definitive Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, Oliver Trager reports that the 22-year-old Dylan wrote the song around February 1962.  That date means it is one of the first songs Dylan ever wrote. Trager also suggests that Emmett Till’s death may have affected Dylan because they were born only months apart.

    Although Dylan initially was proud of “The Death of Emmett Till,” he later seemed embarrassed by its literalness.  He claimed he was just trying to write about something topical. He even went further and said that it was a “bullshit song.”

    It’s true that the song does not rise to the poetic level of the more brilliant similarly themed song, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” But “The Death of Emmett Till” was a good start for the young songwriter, and it helped highlight a great injustice.

    Through the years, listeners rarely got the chance to hear Dylan’s song.  “The Death of Emmett Till” never appeared on an official Bob Dylan release until in 2010 when it was on the CD The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964 (The Bootleg Series Vol. 9) (2010).

    This video below includes some historical interviews about the crime.  Dylan’s song starts at around the 1:55 mark.

    The photo above of Till — whose nickname was Bobo — was taken by his mother on Christmas 1954, eight months before he was murdered.

    How does “The Death of Emmett Till” rank in the Dylan canon? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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