Bob Dylan’s song “Hard Rain is A-Gonna Fall” is an apocalyptic vision of America. But it is also an edifying and hopeful approach to crisis. Since the song’s composition in 1962, the song has remained an eerily contemporary ballad of injustice.
In the song, composed shortly before the Cuban missile crisis, Dylan evokes both global destruction (“a dozen dead oceans”) as well as metaphorical chaos (“ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken”) in a series of visceral images that culminate in the narrator’s realization that crisis—the feeling of imminent apocalypse—requires fortitude and patience. In short, an ability to look into the eye of the storm and remain steadfast in your grounding.
In a time when many are despondent over the appearance of international crisis, I’ve come to appreciate this song as a remedy to feelings of hopelessness. Here are a few reasons why:
1. Some of the most important things in life are ineffable.
Each verse of “Hard Rain” concludes with: “It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.” Part prophecy, part weather prediction. Nevertheless, odd phrasing for a weather prediction. What’s this “it” doing at the beginning of the sentence? The word is oddly specific to the phrasing, yet unclear in what “it” is referencing. Wouldn’t it make more sense to say: “A hard rain’s a-gonna fall?”
Dylan’s up to something. There’s something going on with this “it” because this nonspecific word pops up a lot in this enormously specific and detailed song. Particularly at the end: “And I’ll tell it and speak it and think it and breathe it,/And reflect from the mountains so all souls can see it.”
Perhaps “it” is a way of describing the ineffable, the ultimately mysterious. “It” will compel a hard rain that’ll wash away the poison from the landscape of the song, yet what that “it” is remains maddeningly shrouded behind appearance and impeded by the limits of our perception.
Nevertheless, like trees bending toward an approaching storm, many people seem to intuit an unseen order, an “it.” Dylan, in part, is arguing that the only way to understand this ineffability—to grapple with it in a way that’s constructive—is to respond to it with metaphor and story.
2. Fortitude and resolve, when faced with crisis or conflict, are virtues.
In “Hard Rain,” the “son” has been on a quest and—as we learn at the end of the song—he’s very much still on this journey.
Part of this quest is acquiring the fortitude and resolve to, as he declares at the end, “stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’.” Though the “it” to which Dylan is referring remains elusive, “it” is nevertheless discernible through image, metaphor, and story.
Ultimately, “it” is a way of describing the ineffable, the ultimately mysterious, the mystery we’re both compelled to grapple with yet incapable of resolving.
Faced with this paradox, the fortitude shown by the narrator is admirable: “And I’ll tell it and speak it and think it and breathe it,/And reflect from the mountains so all souls can see it.” Despite “it’s” ineffability, we’re compelled to sing it’s song, to tell the truth as we see “it.” And if we can do this with resolve and patience during crisis, that’s truly extraordinary.
3. Things are bad; they always have been.
The storm prophesied in “Hard Rain” has been a storm foreshadowed for millennia. Each generation is compelled to think they’re facing new and unprecedented challenges.
Dylan’s “Hard Rain” is a literary prophecy of apocalypse, in conversation with W.B. Yeats’ “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” which is in turn in dialogue with the Judaea-Christian tradition of eschatology (“last things” or “end times”), the Zoroastrian notion of Frashokereti (“making fresh”), and the Icelandic account of Ragnorak (“doom or twilight of the powers”), among others.
World religions are filled with narratives about how things are poisoned, the world is bad and getting worse, and as Yeats implored: “Surely some revelation is at hand;/Surely the Second Coming is at hand.”
In 1968, with mounting political unrest in America, Joan Didion would entitle an influential book of essays Slouching Towards Bethlehem. She adopted the title because it’s imagery reflected for her “the evidence of atomization, the proof that things fall apart.” The metaphor simply won’t die; it’s perennial relevant.
4. The really important questions require lots of answers.
In “Hard Rain,” Dylan inaugurates each verse with the same two questions: “Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?/And where have you been, my darling young one?” The answers given by the “son” are a torrent of apocalyptic detail, far outweighing the scale of the seemingly innocuous question posed by a mother to a son.
Dylan composed “Hard Rain” shortly before the Cuban missile crisis, at a time—October 1962—when it seemed to many that Kennedy and Krushchev were heading towards “end times,” an apocalyptic nuclear war.
So Dylan had a lot on his mind. In part, he told Studs Terkel in a 1963 interview, while writing “Hard Rain” he was thinking of “nothingness.” “Line after line after line,” Dylan said, “trying to capture the feeling of nothingness. I kept repeating things I feared.”
And though these lines are in answer to the questions beginning each verse—they aren’t solutions to the horror he’s witnessed. They’re vitally descriptive metaphors; but they don’t bombard you with an answer, a resolution, a ready-made solution.
They’re descriptive metaphors; but they aren’t prescriptive solutions.
5. If there is a solution, it’s perhaps that braving the storm—truly existing and living and grappling with conflict and choice—is the only way to transcend the mire.
I like to imagine that the hard rain prophesied in “Hard Rain” eventually falls and is collected in Dylan’s song “Buckets of Rain,” the closing track on his 1974 album Blood on the Tracks.
“Buckets of Rain” is a song about someone who’s weathered a storm, who’s stood with patience and fortitude, who has collected the rain water that brims in the buckets beside him.
I imagine the narrator routinely emptying the pales, only to be refilled by the storm that continues to rage above him. It’s become a ritual for him, emptying these buckets of rainwater, something to which he’s become accustomed.
He’s grown to find his freedom in these high floodwaters. He seems to be someone who’s found some shelter from the storm.