A few years back, my local folk club had a Dylan Night that was extraordinarily popular; there must have been 120 people there, as against an average week’s turnout of 30-40. By the kick-off the list of people wanting to go on had expanded accordingly; the MC had even tried to keep tabs on who was going to do what (and what they’d do instead if someone else had already done it), resulting in a sheet of paper that looked rather like one of Pete Frame’s denser family trees. The MC didn’t actually blench when I offered to do this song, but he didn’t look overjoyed. “Three minutes flat,” I said. “Trust me.” And did… what you can hear here – although to get the full effect you’ll need to assemble a few dozen friends to come in at the end. Worked rather well, if I say so myself.
What’s it doing here? While the similarity between Hard Rain and “question and answer” songs like Lord Randall or Son Davey is fairly obvious, there may be another link here. On his notes for the nonsense song When I was a little boy – a close relative of When I set off for Turkey – Martin Carthy suggested that Hard Rain follows the structure of a “song of lies” – one exorbitant claim after another, culminating in outright impossibility (“I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinking”). Many of Dylan’s songs are steeped in folk song – and not just the ones that sound ‘folky’; this is a fine example. Like a lot of his songs, it’s a song by a protest singer who didn’t want to be a protest singer. I don’t think that “voice of a generation” role was ever one Dylan was comfortable with, but the process of resisting, renegotiating and ultimately abandoning it was very productive.