Hope and Courage in Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall"
A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall
by Bob Dylan
Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son? Oh, where have you been, my darling young one? I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall 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 And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son? And what did you hear, my darling young one? I heard the sound of a thunder, it roared out a warnin’ 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 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 Oh, who did you meet, my blue-eyed son? Who did you meet, my darling young one? I met a young child beside a dead pony I met a white man who walked a black dog I met a young woman whose body was burning I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow I met one man who was wounded in love I met another man who was wounded with hatred 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 Oh, what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son? Oh, what’ll you do now, my darling young one? 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 Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten Where black is the color, where none is the number And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’ But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’ 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
Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
The first time I heard these words sung I was immediately drawn in. They are the opening line from Bob Dylan’s 1963 ballad "A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall". It is a simple line but strangely emotive and mysterious. But that seems to be the essence of Dylan’s lyrical charism—emotive and mysterious. Whatever one may think of Bob Dylan, it is an undeniable fact that many of the words that he has spun in his long and productive career are not only magical to the ear but meditative to the mind. This is what drew me in to his ballad that begins with a grand and thoughtful question to a returning wandering son: oh, where have you been?
The question is not asked in a way that seeks a location. It is a question that someone asks to a young man that clearly has been through things that have challenged him and changed him. When I first listened to the song I just took in all the striking imagery and dazzling language. Dylan has written a song that feels more like a reading from the Psalms. Its words are striking yet mysterious in their meaning. But after a few listens, I began to see great themes standing out in each stanza, themes that not only reflect the lives of each of us, but that can help us better understand who we are and what we must be about.
Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
The man has struggled. From the beginning it has been obstacle after obstacle. Mountain after mountain has blocked his way from a smooth path. The highway that is normally a safe and wide road has proven crooked and difficult. Nothing has come easy for him. But not only has it been a struggle, it has been a failure in many ways. There has been more darkness than light, more falling than standing victorious. And even when he has made it past an obstacle, he has been met with nothing but dead oceans and lifeless results. How many mountains have you struggled on? How many crooked roads have you walked upon? How many failures fill up the long and winding road of your lifetime already?
Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
The man has seen chaos, chaos that has caused violence and destruction. He has seen babies, the most innocent of creatures, surrounded by wolves. There is no safety in this world. Even the most vulnerable are not protected from the evils that beset our lives. We have been surrounded by evil and disorder. Our lives are full of chaos. We have no direction, no set path. We look for some compass to lead us but all we find is danger and strife. Our soul cannot find the peace that it needs. At times, our whole life has seemed like it is falling apart at the seams. There is so much to be fixed, so much to be fought against that we do not even know where to begin. The white ladder that we know will help us rise above the disorder in our lives has crashed into the heavy waters. Do you feel overwhelmed? Do you feel like you can never catch a break? Do you see yourself surrounded by animosity and violence both in body and in words? Are you tired of always having to fight for every inch in your body and in your soul? Do you simply wish for one struggle to ease up so that you can perhaps overcome another that strikes you down with its bloody hammer? Are you close to your breaking point?
Rage and Sorrow
And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son?
The man has heard rage and sorrow. The thunder and crashing waves have been the heralds of God’s anger upon a world that does not cease its crimes against Him. But it is not only God’s rage that has echoed through the valleys of this earth. We ourselves have felt the anger and angst of souls that have been mistreated and swallowed up whole by loneliness and sin. So often we have struggled in the dark alleyways of our soul where no human hears our cries. We are the smiling clown collapsed beneath the weight of his tears in a damp and dusty corner of the room. So much sin. So much struggle. And nobody to help carry the burden. Yes, we may have our friend or our spouse, but only we can carry the weight of our sins or the burden of our failed attempts. Are you alone? Are you saddened by crushing pain of consistent failure and loneliness? Are you downtrodden by seeing others thrive while you can barely take a step? Are you not what you seem to others? Do you struggle under the burden of trying to be something that you are not so that others may notice or love you? Are you tired of having to pretend to be happy while your soul is cloaked in a dark shroud of sadness? Are you angry? At the world, at those who have done you wrong, at your own insufficiencies, at your God?
Dylan’s character speaks volumes to us in the sights and sounds that he has witnessed. He has seen violence, anger, pride and despair. He has seen the darkness of humanity. But before one might give up and be crushed under the weight of such dark imagery, Dylan gives us a glimmer of hope in his penultimate stanza…
Oh, who did you meet, my blue-eyed son?
The man has met weakness. He has met men, women and children that are good, innocent, generous, loving and hating. But all are weak. Simply weak. There are not beings consumed only by evil. Just weak souls that have lost the battle for the goodness of their hearts. He does not whitewash their lives filled with horrors and haunting sins. But, at the same time, he does not fail to see the glimmer of hope that still breathes, however faint in each and every one of their lives. All is not lost where evil does not reign. Dylan’s final thought on the state of Man is succinctly spelled out in his final two lines of the stanza:
I met one man who was wounded in love
I met another man who was wounded with hatred
All men are wounded. Some wounded by love, and others by hatred. But all are wounded. All are weak. All have done terrible things. But do not look upon them and speak of them in wicked ways and in unmerciful tones. For they are not evil. We are not evil. We are simply weak humans who have let evil reign in the hollow halls of our souls. But where there is weakness, there is the chance for strength, the opportunity for self sacrifice, the invitation to heroism…
Oh, what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
The man is asked what will he do now? And his response is heartrending and triumphant both in its vision and in its scope. He will go back out before the hard rain falls. He will not be afraid of the darkness, the evils, and the lonely nights of struggle and loss. He will walk into the very depths of that darkness. He will go where there is the most sorrow, the greatest hunger and thirst for truth and goodness. He will go to the souls in captivity, to the land where those who were once loved have now been forgotten. But he will not be like some men who simply pass through. No. He will become a man of courage and sacrifice. He will “tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it”. It will be a part of him. He will completely immerse himself in the work of salvation so that he is that burning light of hope, that beaming example lit from the mountaintop.
Not only will he do what is difficult, he will do what he thought was impossible. He will stand on the ocean until he has completed all that was meant for him to complete, and only then will he sink beneath the waves. In this he will have been what he was born to be. He will have accomplished the difficult and overcome the impossible. He will have conquered the vices and faults that the whispering spirits deep within him said he could never overcome. He will push the boundaries of what he thought he could accomplish for his Master. He will have denied the world and abandoned the vanities that weakened his mind and softened his will. Truly, he will have done the impossible. And before he begins to sing the song of joy in his eternal resting place, he will already know the song. For he will have been living the heavenly life long before he reached its gates, the life of self giving sacrifice and unrelenting generosity. He will have known the song a lifetime before he would start singing it.
Do not be afraid. The hard rain is about to fall. You have been through darkness, but there is still more darkness to come. You have failed many times, but there are still may failures to be had. You have lived through chaos and wild disorder, but it will never cease its haunting of you. You have been sorrowful and frustrated, there are yet many sorrows to be placed upon your shoulders and frustrations to heckle you along the way. You have been weak and have lived and loved and been betrayed by the weak around you, but weakness will always be what you and all those around you are. But this the life you were created to live. This is the war that you were born to fight. So from the beginning, you have all that it takes not only to survive, but to conquer.
Do not be afraid. Walk back out into the world darkened by clouds ready to drown the earth in hardship and terror. For you are Catholic. A soul destined to not cower before the impossible, but rather to lean in and fight it with a determination that the world has never known. Have courage and do not look back and do not look forward. Simply look at this one moment. This moment of fear, of sorrow, of frustration, of anger, of temptation, of loneliness, of injustice, of exhaustion, of betrayal, of failure that seeks to extinguish the light of your faith and the fire of your resolve. Look at it. And with courage and hope in the God that fights within you, stare deep into the moment and say:
Patti Smith Performs Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" at the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony 2016