Thursday, August 7, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #19: A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall


"A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" has a very special place in Bob Dylan's catalog, and not just because it's one of his very best songs (and, by definition, one of the best songs ever written). What sets "Hard Rain" apart is that there is, more or less, no precedent or antecedent in his catalog for this song; it is in a league all by itself. Other songs of his wield a similar lyrical power; other songs of his paint pictures as HD-clear in your mind; other songs of his are as catchy on a primal level, benefiting from a chord and verse/chorus structure that sticks to your mind like glue. But very few of his songs manage to combine all of those attributes together into one extraordinary package, as "Hard Rain" does.

There is a very interesting reason for this; Dylan borrowed the structure of an old song for his own. "Lord Randall", a traditional British ballad about a young man who has been poisoned by his lover, utilizes the now-famous question and answer verse structure ("Where have you been all the day, Rendal my son/Where have you been all the day, my pretty one?") to tell the sordid story. The original version, while not nearly as lyrically complex as "Hard Rain", still uses strong and clear language to tell the story engagingly; I particularly like the last verse, where the mother asks what the dying man will leave his lover, and he answers "A rope to hang her with, mother". Amusingly, the song has been adopted before by English, Irish, and American songwriters, changing the darker lyrics to a more traditional "pining for a girl" lyrical device. None of the songs, as you might expect, have the same heft as "Lord Randall" does, let alone "Hard Rain".

The concept of recasting old songs in new lights, one of Young Bob's favorite tricks, has been discussed at length here, but I can't help keeping it foremost on my mind. What it reminds me of, in a modern day context, is the ever-raging debate about sampling in music, and whether or not sampling should be allowed, or if it constitutes legitimate art. A lot of my favorite music contains samples, so my thoughts on the issue will be clear right off the bat; all the same, I understand where the other side is coming from, and it's a debate that's worth considering.

What I would assume is most important to established artists, especially really popular artists, is the issue of recompense for samples of their own music. I do understand that; if somebody's going to build off your own work, why shouldn't you get a piece of their profit? Two of the most notoriously difficult to sample artists are the Beatles and James Brown (at least after he started pressing lawsuits); coincidentally, both were absolutely screwed sideways in business dealings and lost a massive chunk of change that rightfully belonged to them through arcane merchandising and licensing deals that made lots of people that weren't them rich. This is a very hard gulf to breach, and all I can really offer as a counterpoint is that while the songs may belong to the artists in a literal sense, in a cultural sense "A Day in The Life" and "The Payback" have stopped belonging to them a very long time ago. They are part of our public consciousness, and they belong to us and to the rest of the world. We treasure those songs, listen to them constantly, are influenced by them to start bands and write songs of our own, and often use them as springboards to new and different bands and songs. Sampling, in its way, is an extension of writing a new song with the old one in mind; you may be using part of that old song, but it's being directed in a new way. Being paid for samples is all well and good, but it makes me sad when royalty fees reach staggering levels. Those famous artists can afford to let their songs go.

The other major issue, then, is the idea of the legitimacy of using samples to create works of art, and whether the sampler is worthy of praise or scorn. I'd hope that most of you would come down on my side of this, but there might be some that think "how lazy is that - he just took that 'Funky Drummer' break and looped it! What an ass!" when you hear some random rap song. I would hope that the numerous fantastic music that's been assembled from samples would be enough to change your mind. An album like, say, Paul's Boutique would not exist without sampling, and yet the samples aren't just there in lieu of imagination. They are the results of imagination; the Dust Brothers and Matt Dike took God knows how many snippets of just about every form of music you could imagine, assembled them together, and created new, exciting, and vital pieces of music from them. There is a certain amount of theft, of course, but there is just as much an amount of tribute and homage to those original artists being paid. Being able to spot something and sample it in a creative fashion is a skill, and I feel very strongly about that.

To bring this back to "Hard Rain", in a very real sense, Bob sampled that question-and-answer style for his song, more or less down to the very idea of a mother singing to her son (honestly, is there a reason that it's mother/son unless it came directly from "Lord Randall"?), and he took that sample to create a song that is on a whole other artistic level. From that structure, he built a foundation of dazzling lyricism, full of mind-bending imagery, heartbreaking dramatic moments, and a final promise to shed light in the darkness of the world that that blue-eyed son has seen, to sing about the empty hands of the people and the hidden face of the executioner, and to do it all in the face of whatever comes, be it the Lord's pounding rain. He took a piece of the past and recast it in his own way as a piece of the future.

Whenever I listen to sampled music, I often find myself searching out the origins of the samples, and that often leads to my musical vocabulary being enriched and broadened. Mashup artist du jour Girl Talk, for example, slams hundreds of samples into his works, and that leads me to Annie's hyper-modern pop and forgotten classic-rock nuggets like "Gimme Some Lovin'". It's not quite the same here - I severely doubt most people today have any interest in traditional music - but given how much Dylan still loves traditional music, I think that idea might have been wedged somewhere in the back of his mind. It's like "Pretty Peggy-O"; Bob loves it, and he wants us to love it, too. Just remember what Newton said about why he could see further.


So most of you, I'm sure, have heard the Gaslight Tapes, either through bootlegging or the version sold at, of all the places, Starbucks stores (the Starbucks version is missing seven songs, for reasons not particularly clear to anybody). For those that haven't, you're missing out: Dylan, presumably at a late-hours show in a small cafe in New York, performs a few originals and a truckload of traditional songs, one of which made it on Bob Dylan ("See That My Grave Is Kept Clean") and a couple that should've made it on either of his first 2 albums ("Black Cross", "Rocks and Gravel"). The performances are quite good, of course, but it's the rarity of the material that makes the tapes really essential. And, seeing as the show comes from October 1962, before Dylan's 2nd Freewheelin' sessions, you can see Bob making the transition from the interpreter of his debut to the talented writer of originals a year later.

At any rate, the opening song on the tape is "Hard Rain", which some people attending might have actually heard before (the song was premiered at a Carnegie Hall hootenanny a month earlier), but surely some in attendance hadn't heard. It must've been amazing - those words just pouring first, line after line, leading to that famous chorus that actually builds its own intensity on top of the intensity of the verses performed before. But what's really cool about the performance is that, as Bob sings the chorus, the people in attendance actually begin to join in and sing along with him. Their voices are faint on the tape - the recording system, which picks up Bob's voice and guitar quite well, doesn't catch the audience as well - but still audible, an impromptu backup vocal group for Bob.

What's cool about that, on top of the spur-of-the-moment feel of it, is simply the fact that the audience chose to participate at all. I'm no great shakes as a musician, but a while back I liked to play an open mic at a coffee house/performance venue not too far from where I was living. It was a fun time; there were plenty of good acts every time out, my friends would come by and watch me sing, and there really aren't that many thrills you can have for free than performing in front of a crowd (especially if it's an original you're performing). But, in the end, what made playing those open mics so great was just being able to get up there at all, to be part of something public and shared.

Music, of course, was meant to be performed for audiences long before records and CDs and mp3s and all that; hell, even before sheet music. That was the point - nobody was thinking about selling albums or building buzz for the next tour, just reveling in how great music is and having a good time with some friends. Bill James, the noted baseball historian, actually writes about this when talking about a baseball player who participated in a barbershop quartet - at a certain point, with the proliferation of recording devices and increasingly portable ways to listen to music, the idea of performances like that sort of died away. After all, you've got the CDs, you can hear professional musicians, so why bother singing for yourself or for others?

That's a bunch of crap, obviously; so much of the thrill, the fun of music is making it for yourself, which is why karaoke has gotten so popular (having alcohol to "improve" your performance doesn't hurt, either). Karaoke, along with the more traditional open mics, allows us peons to reclaim music for ourselves, to make noise and sing and all that without fear and with the joy that comes of being around others that love music just as much as you do. That performance of "Hard Rain" captures that spirit incredibly well, and I'm glad that it exists for us to hear.



- 1962: "Hard Rain" debuts at a Carnegie Hall hootenanny set up by Pete Seeger.

- 1963: Shows up a few times, most notably on the Studs Terkel radio show performance and in Dylan's huge Carnegie Hall headlining show.

-1964: Performed on Canada's Quest TV show, or as I like to call it, the "Why The Hell Is Dylan Performing In A Rustic Log Cabin?" show. Video below, just so you can ponder that very question as well (and, I guess, enjoy the performance). As you might imagine, it's a staple of Bob's setlist that year, and shows up in the released (and awesome) Philharmonic Hall show.

-1965: Disappears from setlists; doesn't even show up on the UK tour filmed for Don't Look Back, where his all-acoustic setlists basically erased his (admittedly small) electric output from the public record. Your guess is as good as mine.

-1971: Performing his first United States concert in 6 years, Dylan dusts off "Hard Rain" as the opener for his set at the Concert for Bangladesh, backed by George Harrison, Leon Russell, and Ringo Starr (on tambourine; thanks, Ringo!). The timing's a tad off at times, but the performance sounds very relaxed and comes off great.

-1974: A single performance in Denver as part of Tour '74. Let's move on, shall we?

-1975: I'll admit it - the major reason I put this section together was to talk about Bob's RTR I performances of "Hard Rain". Some of you may remember my little discussion about covers in one of my older posts. Well, this is as extraordinary as you can get; Dylan, by virtue of remaking this song inside out, essentially is covering himself. It's a brave decision, in a way, recasting one of his most famous folk-era songs as a Chicago blues song, complete with stinging slide guitar and a bassline that lopes like the "Keep On Truckin'" guy, and yet it sounds incredibly natural, like THIS was the real version and the acoustic version was the "cover". I'm including the "Hard Rain" from the Waterbury show on November 11, 1975 (one of my top 3 RTR I shows) for your listening pleasure. The sound's not quite up to the standard of the official Bootleg Series CD, but the performance is a cut above; this bastard smokes.

ETA: Just found video of "Hard Rain" from the Montreal show (another of my top 3 RTR I shows...the 3rd one I'll leave you all to guess for yourself). To not include it here would be a legitimate crime against humanity. Well, a legitimate crime against you readers.

-1976: Much like the rest of RTR II (as big a disappointment as any of Bob's career), the performances of "Hard Rain" from this tour leave me kinda cold. The band slows the song down, almost to the point of torpor (it's slower than the Freewheelin' version!), fucks up the chorus, and stretches out the "it's a hard rain's a-gonna fall" line in a way that it surely was not meant to. If RTR I was like taking a Ferarri down the Autobahn, RTR II was, for the most part, like taking a Ferrari down Broadway in New York City when the red light pattern is distinctly not in your favor. Performances like this illustrate that perfectly.

-1978: Shows up either as a show-opening instrumental, or as an acoustic version. Usually a welcome respite, as any acoustic version would be, from the overwhelming histrionics of the 1978 world tour.

-1980: Part of the "Musical Retrospective" shows at the end of the year, i.e. Bob's way of saying "okay, I get it, the religious stuff is wearing thin on ME too". I've always liked the 80-81 bands, and they do the song justice here.

-1984: Performed in the acoustic set of Dylan's European tour that ended up being documented on Real Live (it still stuns me that we have a live album of that crappy tour, but we had to wait 30 years for the RTR to get their due). My memory of the tour's sound is admittedly hazy; the Barcelona show's the only one that really stuck with me, to be honest. I'm just still bitter that he didn't tour with his Letterman band.

-1986: The best part of the Dylan/Petty & the Heartbreakers tour this year was the acoustic section, where Dylan would duet with Petty. The version of "Hard Rain" from the Buffalo show is intimate (no small feat in a football stadium) and great.

-1988: It's hard to find a Dylan fan that doesn't like the 1988 tour, especially when he'd bust out the acoustics with GE Smith and play both some of his songs and a traditional or two. "Hard Rain", like just about all the acoustic performances, is beautifully performed and well sung (as fantastic as the electric portions of the 88 shows were, Dylan actually got to sing on the acoustic parts, and he makes the most of it).

-1994: Skipped all the other years just so I could link to the video of Dylan performing "Hard Rain" at the Great Music Experience in Japan, backed by a massive orchestra. All three songs he performed here were fantastic; the strings and added instruments give the song an added heft and help underscore the lyrics. Just watch it, for Pete's sake.

-1995-today: Dylan always gives this song a sort of "elder statesman" treatment in his shows, performing it with gravitas and letting his band solo away (as is his wont for the modern NET shows). The version on Bathed in a Stream of Pure Heat is the benchmark example.

Thanks to Olof Bjorner and his awesome Dylan site for helping with Section 3.

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Justin Shapiro said...

"Well, you have to understand that I'm not a melodist. My songs are either based on old Protestant hymns or Carter Family songs or variations of the blues form. What happens is, I'll take a song I know and simply start playing it in my head. That's the way I meditate. ... I meditate on a song. I'll be playing Bob Nolan's "Tumbling Tumbleweeds," for instance, in my head constantly – while I'm driving a car or talking to a person or sitting around or whatever. People will think they are talking to me and I'm talking back, but I'm not. I'm listening to a song in my head. At a certain point, some words will change and I'll start writing a song. ... I wrote 'Blowin' in the Wind' in 10 minutes, just put words to an old spiritual, probably something I learned from Carter Family records. That's the folk music tradition. You use what's been handed down. 'The Times They Are A-Changin' " is probably from an old Scottish folk song."
- BD

"I often find myself searching out the origins of the samples, and that often leads to my musical vocabulary being enriched and broadened. ... It's not quite the same here - I severely doubt most people today have any interest in traditional music - but given how much Dylan still loves traditional music, I think that idea might have been wedged somewhere in the back of his mind."

I might even say front of his mind. He's been banging the drum (and picking the guitar) for traditional music since jump street; even at the height of his back-turning, establishment-burning mid-60s rock stardom, he was telling the folk revivalist crowd that they were missing the real brilliance of traditional songs. While I don't think Dylan listeners are going to trip over themselves seeking out the Mississippi Sheiks or Dock Boggs -- though I'm sure a fair number have -- in quite the same way that hearing "One Headlight" in 1996 led me towards Bob's music, I don't doubt that he'd like nothing more than for that to be the case. The easter egg hunts that have sprung out of the lyrics of the last two albums sort of imply as much, but the sentiments expressed by the Dylan of Theme Time Radio Hour and the World Gone Wrong liner notes make no bones about it. Enriching and broadening people's music vocabularies seems to be one of the defining m.o.'s of latter day Dylan. It's right there in the winks of last two album titles (CDs called Modern Times and Love And Theft built out of old stolen melodies and lyrics), in the way he sings "time and love has branded me with its claws" immediately before quoting a line from Sonny Boy Williamson, in the way he changes the tense in the refrain of the Mississippi Sheiks' "The World Is Going Wrong" from the present continuous to the present perfect -- because the Sheiks were right, the world did go wrong, the insights of traditional songs were true and right and still hold all the answers.

My initial feeling about folk music tradition as compared to sampling was that I approved of both, you know, 'ethically,' but thought that folk borrowings and building-upons were, in their way, in some way, purer from an artistic standpoint. But I decided that that was poorly thought out, because the major difference between folk palimpsest and hip-hop sampling was the different contexts they've occurred in, specifically 1) the obvious technological advancements, like the ability to record sound and, later, the increasingly-elaborate ability to produce it, and 2) the significant cultural shifts towards the corporate and the copyright and the idea that everything belongs to someone. Each artistic act is in basically the same spirit, although I kind of perceive a difference between the two in the sense that sampling seems to decontextualize and subvert its sources, whereas folk revision almost does the opposite with (some of) its -- tries to tap into them and carry their whole history and associations and timbre and conveyed feelings with them.

In this contemporary context, the context of a culture in which the concept of sampling makes for such a debatable issue, the very notion of Dylan using the musical equivalent of found footage in this way just doesn't register. The modern day conceptualization of art is that it's supposed to be something wholly original and idiosyncratic that is born fully-formed from the fertile mind of The Artist, and using someone else's anything means you're depriving them of some of their recognition and residuals. The disconnect between the past and the present and the kind of anachronism it causes is no better exemplified than the bit of handwringing about "Rollin' and Tumblin'" when Modern Times was released. Dylan takes the melody and first two lines of "Rollin' and Tumblin'," a song made famous by Muddy Waters, and writes a new set of lyrics on top of it. That the new song was fully acknowleding its indebtedness to the old one couldn't be more clear, but because the song isn't credited in the liner notes as "music and two lyrics by Muddy Waters, lyrics by Bob Dylan, additional lyrics by Henry Timrod," then clearly mean Dylan was stealing from poor Muddy and duplicitously trying to pass the poor bluesman's work off as his own. The irony is that Muddy Waters didn't write "Rollin' and Tumblin'" either -- he just had the most famous version of a song recorded by many people with differing sets of lyrics, Dylan's being the latest in that long line. Technically, the 'proper compensation' for this sampled melody might ought to belong to a certain Hambone Willie Newbern, Esq., but then again, he just as easily might've gotten it from someone else.

Despite the outcry, Dylan has never bothered to 'defend' these crimes of his and, in fact, seems to not even acknowledge the existence of the argument, as if to say that this is what music should be and is all about, and just because the societal rules about this sort of thing have changed doesn't mean that he's going to be kowtowed into leaving behind the old ones. Dylan's recycling sometimes gets framed as yet another one of those sneaky acts of ever-the-trickster Dylan, but my impression has always been that it's not sneakiness to him so much as it's just a perfectly natural thing for a songwriter to do, and people who think otherwise just don't get it the way that he does and the way that Woody did and the way that all the other old singers who meant everything to him did. That said, early on in the game in The Times They Are A-Changin' liner notes, he did outright cop to being "a thief of thoughts" compelled "t' make new sounds out of old sounds an' new words out of old words an' not t' worry about the new rules." It has to be pointed out, though, that he's one of the few artists who possesses enough cultural cachet to get away with ignoring those new rules under penalty of just some slight scolding. If say, a Jack White, for all his virtues and his knowledge of his musical forebearers, dare tried to pull something like that, he'd be excoriated. Dylan gets appreciated for being 'the embodiment of the last link to the music of a bygone era etc etc etc,' but it's going to be made sure that he stays the last link, too.

-2007:Dylan records a new studio version of the song for the Expo Zaragoza fair, making it, as best I can remember, the only song in his entire catalogue that Dylan has officially released a new studio version of (excepting the wholly rewritten "Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking"). This "Hard Rain" actually samples a 45-year-old folk song called "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" written by Bob Dylan in 1962 -- son of a bitch probably claimed writing credit on it too.

Tony said...

Holy schlamoly! Justin, once again you've brought the A game to my blog, up to and including using the word "palimpset". Truly amazing. You'll forgive me, I hope, in answering your points out of order.

It is a rather interesting notion that Dylan will be the last guy allowed (if that's the word) to reinterpret the way he does. There's a weird guilt thing, I think, in the cries of foul that accompany that sort of thing, as though somehow the old artists that stole and reconfigured and what have you would somehow feel angered when somebody else dared to do that very thing. Dylan, who's probably as knowledgeable about traditional music as anybody alive, certainly would know that those musicians, more than anything else, would just laugh it off. Then again, those old musicians didn't have royalties to deal with, so...

It's also incredibly aggravating to have to deal with that notion you advanced, that somehow all new music must be Original and Groundbreaking and can't deal in any way with the past, lest Buddy Holly or Robert Johnson climb out of their graves and strangle us all. It's one reason, I think, why Pitchfork can be so infuriating - in their never-ending and often noble quest to advance the cause of independent music (which tends to stretch musical boundaries, if not outright snap them), they will take a massive dump on mainstream music to a degree that invites both scorn and an odd pity. I mean, what in the world is wrong with the occasional arena band or mainstream hip-hop artist? Do musical critics do the world a disservice by daring to give a high rating to Pearl Jam, a group that has never shied from wearing their influences on their sleeves?

I know that Pitchfork often reviews past releases, but only certain ones - it's like they're trying to advance their own version of musical history, one that might occasionally miss the forest for the trees, especially the little gnarled trees nobody pays much thought to. I'm glad they do it, because otherwise those little dark corners of history would never have light shed on them otherwise, but there's plenty to love and cherish in the mainstream as well.

I think I lost the thread a little, so let me find it again - musical history has, very often, been not so much written as scrawled in black marker over past history, with artist after artist borrowing in order to create something new, and having that something new borrowed to create something even newer. To ignore that fact, or pretend after the fact that it's a crime against humanity, seems entirely disingenuous.

What's really remarkable about the last two albums is that, in a sense, they're yet another reinvention of Bob's musical style, a sharpening of his younger self's musical tropes with four decades of experience to help things along. To make that move after Time Out Of Mind, an album beloved by critics everywhere and an album that sounds very little like the next two, is just as extraordinary.

Great Dylan fan I am, I have heard nothing about the re-recorded version of Hard Rain. Want to shoot it my way? I'll bake ya a cake!

Justin said...

Organ donor:

yellow cake please. no uranium.

andrew! said...

The only thing that bugs me about the folk tradition thing that Bob seems to espouse is why then did he (or his publishing company) go ahead & sue Rod Stewart for his song Forever Young or Hootie & the Blowfish when they lifted a couple of his lines for "I only wanna be with you". Maybe it's only copyright infringement if it sucks.

As for live versions of A Hard Rain's a Gonna Fall, I believe the song took on new life in 2003 as it seemed to build & build to an incredible crescendo during the last verse. The version from Hammersmith is almost perfect except for a lyric flub towards the beginning, the best version is probably the one from New Orleans.

Tony said...

Many thanks, Justin! I gave it a listen and wasn't entirely sure if I liked it or not; the band turns it into a good ol' time hootenanny (which is good), but Bob doesn't really get his vocal to mesh with the tempo (which is bad). Another listen or two will probably firm up my opinion either way. Expect your cake any day now!*

*note: you're really not expecting a cake, are you?

andrew!, I think that might be more a publishing company/record company deal, since the songs Bob "borrowed" from are traditionals that aren't owed royalties, while Dylan's songs are copyrighted and thus evil lawyers have to get involved whenever somebody wants to use them. Plus, as you noted, those songs suck.

I'd forgotten about the 2003 versions; the funny thing is that I've heard the Brixton show because of its notoriety (is this the show with Romance in Durango, or the one with Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread?). You're right about the tension of the song, btw; the piano in the foreground, Dylan's urgent vocal, and the heavy drumbeats at the end really give that song some added oomph.

Elmer Gantry said...

"I think that might be more a publishing company/record company deal..."

Sorry, but I think that is Bob's signature prominently displayed in the settlement between him & Hootie and the Blowfish:

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