Tag Archives: A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall

Music Review: ‘Bringing It All Back Home’ by Bob Dylan

A retro-review of a classic album..

Thoughts inspired by the music.

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Well, I try my best
To be just who I am
But everybody wants you
To be just like them
They say sing while you slave and I just get bored

– “Maggie’s Farm”

Many confuse the reality of old with the definition of classic. Old is old. Many of us have, or are beginning to, understand just how much fun that is. A classic maintains its relevance over time. It is not of its time but, rather, for all time.

And, so, the Nobel committee conferred the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature upon Bob Dylan, who has referred to himself as both “a song and dance man” and “just a guitar player.” Bono (the lead singer of U2) said in Rolling Stone that Dylan “busted through the artifice to get to the art.” [Or, perhaps, the heart. -ed.] Many people enjoy any opportunity to suggest that Dylan cannot sing (to which I refer you to “Tomorrow Is a Long Time” from Greatest Hits Volume II, “Love Minus Zero” from MTV Unplugged, Blood on the Tracks. the outtakes included on Tell Tale Signs, such as “Girl From the Red River Shore,” etc., etc., etc.) But, people are welcome to their opinion.

And that is the point. The Nobel committee shared its opinion. Allow me to share mine.

When I was growing up, there was this concept called “The Canon.” It was what every educated person needed to read. Beowulf, Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, and the like. Well, my father was an English major and, like any good son, I could not imagine anything better than being like him. Now I realize I never stood a chance. He remains one helluva man. I can only hope people speak as highly of me when all is said and done as they do of him. Fat chance, but I do my best. As Mark Twain said, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant, I could barely stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” I love you, Dad.

So, I became an English major, and I got angry with business majors and engineers who never read anything. Dammit, how can you get a degree without reading Hamlet? Everybody has to read this stuff during their formal education or they never will. Well, I was wrong. First, you have to allow people to willingly expose themselves to ideas, imagine different alternatives, and see that their reality is not the only reality. Example: I read Moby Dick in my 30s. It was among the most tedious and disagreeable texts that I ever read – voluntarily or by force (Tristam Shandy and Clarissa excluded). Others would argue that it is great literature. Well, put this in front of a 16-year-old kid (it was traditionally a novel included in the sophomore high school curriculum), and don’t be surprised if young adults refuse to read “literature” again.

Recent events have re-energized those who are inclined to take their shots at Dylan. Perhaps some are envious that their ideas do not resonate with the soul to the extent that many of his do. I cannot help that. Let me remind you that Fitzgerald was oft criticized in his time as being “too autobiographical.” Does anyone wish that they had written The Great Gatsby? I sure as hell do.

So what is literature, if not a tool to provoke one to think and feel ideas and emotions that they have not previously experienced via their everyday existence? What is it if it does not spark in one the imagination to move beyond what they thought possible? Emotion sparks thought; rather than the other way around.

Many associate Dylan and 1965 with the Newport Jazz Festival and the instant that he “went electric.” But between March 22, 1965, and May 16, 1966 – 14 months, Dylan released three of the most seminal pieces of art of the 20th/21st century, these being Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. Arguably, the thoughts, themes, and ideas that resonate here had not been expressed with this intensity in this time frame and in a manner that so challenged the social mores. No other works exposed the nature of the human soul so candidly since the 1490s (if you get my drift).

In The Mayor of McDougal Street, Dave Von Ronk, who was considered the king of Greenwich Village’s folk scene in the late 50s/early 60s, addressed the hidden sore spot of Dylan’s rise to fame. He said, essentially, that if you are the guy who writes “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” then you are the guy, period. Enough said.

“Hard Rain” was first released on 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. And one could turn to “Chimes of Freedom” and “My Back Pages” from 1964’s Another Side of Bob Dylan to suggest that his transformation from folk-protest singer to humanist-muse was not only in progress, but already completed.

Humans, however, do not tolerate change easily. So Bob decided to discard the subtle and get even more explicitly in our faces.

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The reason why Bringing It All Back Home blew the roof off of it all is “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Bob Dylan never claimed to be a poet but he wrote/sang this: “Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky/With one hand waving free/Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands/With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves/Let me forget about today until tomorrow.” Include one of the greatest love songs ever written in “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” – which most people, other than Rick Nelson fans, don’t even know exists: “The bridge at midnight trembles/ The country doctor rambles/Bankers’ nieces seek perfection/Expecting all the gifts that wise men bring/The wind howls like a hammer/The night blows cold and rainy/My love she’s like some raven/At my window with a broken wing.”

Then there’s “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” which includes lines such as, “He who is not busy being born is busy dying,” “But even the president of the United States must have to stand naked,” “I’ve got nothing, Ma, to live up to,” and “While money doesn’t talk, it swears.”

The album ends with “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” a brilliant effort in and of itself, but even more poignant when it is revealed to be a bridge to Highway 61.

And so, after this, ridiculously great works such as “Desolation Row,” “Stuck Inside of Mobile (with the Memphis Blues Again),” “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Simple Twist of Fate,” “Shooting Star,” “Mississippi,” and many, many more phenomenal artistic creations – most of which the general populace has not had the time to absorb or brain capacity to digest, live in our collective psyche. And Dylan continues to create and perform.

Make of what it what you will. That’s your right. But, while placing poetry against music may have begun a long time ago, everyone in the music industry that followed Dylan has pointed to him as the transformational artist of this century and the pivot point for all that came next. (Rolling Stone magazine labeled Highway 61 as “The album that changed everything!”) And, the last time I checked, music was an art form.

For those who are hung up because Dylan is not a “singer,” in some purist’s definition, ask yourselves this: “How does it feel?”

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bringing-it-all-back-home-outtake

Again, for those who argue that Bob Dylan is not a poet, he never claimed to be. But he invented his own language; a language that changed the world. Is inventing a language worthy of the Nobel prize? You decide.

Genius is by definition untouchable by the rest of us, which is why it is genius. Artists possess the courage to attack and slay conventional wisdom, which makes them unique. Bob Dylan ended Bringing It All Back Home with “Baby Blue,” whose final lines are: “Strike another match, go start anew/And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.” Indeed.

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

Dave Moyer is a public school superintendent and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel; a story about life, love, baseball, and Bob Dylan.

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After The Rain

The Mayor of MacDougal Street: A Memoir by Dave Van Ronk with Elijah Wald (DaCapo, $15.99, 272 pages)

“And so we’ll drink the final toast/That can never be spoken:/Here’s to the heart that’s wise enough/To know when it’s been broken.” Dave Van Ronk, “Last Call”

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Largely Unheralded Van Ronk Puts Interesting Life and Career on Paper with Ease and Authority

When a book begins like this, it’s a pretty good sign the reader is in for one helluva ride:

Back at Our Lady of Perpetual Bingo, where I went to school, along with the rack, thumbscrew, and bastinado, they had a curious custom of announcing grades in the final exams and then making everybody hang around for an extra week before turning us loose for summer vacation. Presumably they did this to reinforce our belief in Purgatory.

And so begins The Mayor of MacDougal Street, Dave Van Ronk’s outstanding first-person memoir (finished after his death by Elijah Wald).

While there are the tales of the boozing and other types of mildly unseemly behavior that one might expect, the book is first and foremost about the musician and the music. Van Ronk tells of his complete disinterest in school; how he started out as a jazz guitarist; was coaxed into singing; became a ringleader of the folk scene in Greenwich Village in the late 50s and early 60s; his migration out West because that’s where there were more, higher paying gigs; a short-lived attempt at a rock band in the late 60s; and his continued singing and song writing career that slipped largely under the radar from the 70s on.

Along the way, there’s some interesting political commentary, but don’t be fooled into thinking that the book is about the politics of the folk era. The book is about the music.

Mayor McDougal

There are stories of late night guitar sessions, his love of literature, and a few shenanigans and narrow escapes, but what is most interesting is the context in which other great musicians are discussed as Van Ronk’s tale unfolds. You get just about everybody: Odetta, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Leonard Cohen, Woody Guthrie, Joni Mitchell, Leadbelly, Mike Porco, Izzy Young, Bob Dylan – of course – and many, many more. You get places: Cafe Wha?, Gerde’s Folk City, Gaslight Cafe, White Horse Tavern, Kettle of Fish, and more. You get songs: some more obscure such as “Duncan and Brady” and “Dink’s Song,” and others that one might expect such as “This Land Is Your Land” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”

The cover of the book states, “The life story that inspired the Coen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis.” For modern movie goers who might not otherwise know about Greenwich Village and many of the seminal performing artists referred to in these pages, that might be a hook, but for any serious music lover, this book is a must read, movie or no movie.

The last chapter brings much of the scene into perspective. Of “Hard Rain,” Van Ronk writes, “The tune was borrowed from ‘Lord Randall,’ and it was in the same question-and-response form, but the imagery was right out of the symbolist school. It was not a flawless work – the ‘clown who cried in the alley’ always sounded to me like the verbal equivalent of a painting on velvet – but the overall effect was incredible. I heard him (Dylan) sing it for the first time during one of the hoot nights at the Gaslight, and I could not even talk about it; I just had to leave the club and walk around for a while. It was unlike anything that had come before it, and it was clearly the beginning of a revolution.”

For those who were envious when Dylan hit it big, Van Ronk simply states, “All you had to do was write ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ – for the first time.” And, of himself, he states acceptingly, “I have never made a fortune – as a matter of fact, I have often been deeply in debt – but dammit, this is what I wanted to do, and I have been able to do it for almost fifty years, and I haven’t been able to do anything else, and what more can I ask? I wanted to be a musician, and I am a musician, and that’s what it’s all about.”

Yes, Dave, it is.

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher. Dave Moyer is an educator, drummer, and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

“Dave was the man on MacDougal Street when I arrived in the Village over forty years ago, and he is once more raucously ruling the street in these pages.” Tom Paxton

“Brilliant writing.” Christine Lavin

“In Greenwich Village, Van Ronk was king of the street, he reigned supreme.” Bob Dylan

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