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Wednesday, December 14, 2016

A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall

For many, 2016 has been an annus horribilus. There was a presidential campaign that was unendurable but the resolution was even worse, and the ongoing results are horrifying (see my entry tomorrow). It is perceived that many beloved people died, such as David Bowie, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Elie Wiesel, Merle Haggad, Leonard Cohen, Gene Wilder, Alan Rickman, and your favorite, but I think this is true of any year, it just seems like the latest year is worse.

For many the prospect of four years with Donald Trump or Mike Pence leading the free world is so terrifying that we must turn to our artists as salvation, and mostly we turn to song. For a moment it seemed like the anthem of our melancholy was Cohen's "Hallelujah," played by Kate McKinnon, in Hillary Clinton get-up, after Trump's win. She only sang a few of the many choruses, but the most touching was:

"I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah"

This, of course, just days after Cohen died. Perhaps the man couldn't stomach the idea of a Trump presidency. Some pointed out it was hypocritical of Saturday Night Live to publicly mourn a Clinton loss, as they allowed Trump to host during the campaign and gave him a lot of free publicity.

But I agree with a lot of people that the song of the age is now one that is 54 years old, written by a twenty-year old folk singer from Minnesota. I'm talking about "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall," and it was recently performed by Patti Smith, accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature for its composer, Bob Dylan. It seemed a perfect juxtaposition: the godmother of punk singing a timeless song by the troubadour of her generation, her long gray hair like a priestess. She flubbed the second verse, and had to start over again, but that seemed to make it just more human--she was told that it seemed to symbolize all of our struggles.

The song, like many of Dylan's, is inscrutable. It appeared on his second album, The Free-Wheelin' Bob Dylan, though it seems as if it belongs to his later period of ten-minute songs. It was first performed in September 1962 at a folk hootenanny at Carnegie Hall, organized by Pete Seeger. He told each act that they had three songs and ten minutes, but Dylan told him one of his songs was ten minutes long.

The timing disproves that it was written about the Cuban missile crisis, and Dylan has denied it's about atomic fallout, "it's just a hard rain," he said, "not an atomic one."

Written in a question-and-answer form of an ancient ballad called "Lord Randall," it consists of five stanzas, each with a parent asking a question of a blue-eyed son, a darling young one. There is no chorus, only verses. The first has a number in each line: "twelve misty mountains," "six crooked highways," "seven sad forests," "a dozen dead oceans," "ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard,"

The second, in response to "what did you see, my blue-eyed son," may be the most powerful, and includes incredibly vivid imagery such as:

"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’"

The third verse is the answer to "what did you hear, my blue-eyed son," and again has the kind of imagery a poet would give his eye teeth to come up with:

"Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world
Heard one hundred drummers whose hands were a-blazin’
Heard ten thousand whisperin’ and nobody listenin’
Heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin’
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley"

Each verse ends with the line "And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard. It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall." Is that a warning? Or just a statement of fact. Rain, like death, is unavoidable (in most parts of the world) and we have learned to live with it, in fact it is necessary for life. But, as we have seen in hurricanes, it can be deadly.

So now, in this Age of Trump, a hard rain is a-gonna fall. Will we grow, or will we drown?

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