There’s a reason that Dylan just won a Nobel.
Written in 1962 and released on the 1963 album Freewheelin’, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall is one of those songs that can fairly be described as “epic”, a serious work of genuine poetry full of bleak imagery and post-apocalyptic sentiments that seemed, in the immediate aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, evocative of nuclear war and the deadly fallout that comes after. Dylan has said that’s too literal an interpretation. One thing’s for sure: it isn’t about sweet little bunnies hopping about in flowery fields. From the first time I heard it, certain lines were indelibly burned into memory:
Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall
This sort of thing might have been familiar to followers of the Beat poets, and the art house crowd, but it was a far cry from anything for which adolescent Americans had thus far been prepared by their AM radios. Beach Blanket Bingo, this wasn’t. At a time when escapism was the very essence of popular song, here was Dylan proclaiming, like some prophet of a looming armageddon, that he heard the sound of a thunder that roared out a warning, he heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world.
In 1963 the top song, according to Billboard, was Sugar Shack, by Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs. Have a taste of the scrumptious words:
There’s a crazy little shack beyond the tracks
And ev’rybody calls it the sugar shack
Well, it’s just a coffeehouse and it’s made out of wood
Espresso coffee tastes mighty good
Espresso! Yum! It would have given you whiplash to pull that off the platter and give a spin to Dylan’s magnum opus, and hear him tell you that his travels had taken him out in front of a dozen dead oceans, and ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard. You could bop down to the sugar shack and romance your sweetie, or you could follow Bob and see where he took you. It didn’t sound half as fun:
I’m a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
And the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the colour, where none is the number
I know, right? Bummer. Yet the thought might have occurred that maybe there were unpleasant truths that simply had to be confronted. There was a whiff of revolution in the air, as if young people were stirring from their intellectual torpor. As Bobby D. told us, the times they were a-changin’. Popular music was suddenly a medium for serious artistic expression; and just around the corner, four kids from Liverpool were coming to blow the doors off the whole scene.