The following is the transcript from a final presentation I prepared for my “American Writers” English class. Students were tasked with proposing and defending a new addition to the American literary canon.
“Who is Bob Dylan?” That is the insoluble question that experts and amateurs of music alike have attempted to answer ever since Robert Zimmerman fled Minnesota for New York City in 1961 to fabricate a new life under the alias Bob Dylan. As celebrated as his career is, the now-75-year-old musician has always been at odds with the purpose of his own existence, once stating “All I can do is be me, whoever that is” in an interview. Nevertheless, many aim to define the enigma that is Bob Dylan through rattling off some key descriptors: American, songwriter, musician, singer, and writer among others. All of these are accurate; however, as a self-professed Dylanologist (you heard that right), I prefer to associate Dylan with one word and one word only: poet.
Now of course I’m not the sole individual who regards Dylan as a poet and upholds his body of work as literature. Just ask the Swedish Academy, who awarded Dylan with the Nobel Prize in Literature, marking the first time a musician has won the prestigious award. Inevitably, backlash from portions of the literary world that questioned songwriting’s newly minted realm in literature arose, allowing for open discussion that challenged the very definition of literature and whether that definition is pliable or not. A deserving victory for songwriters as a collective, most criticism was crushed under the long-standing stature of the Swedish Academy and the simple truth that songs are poetry accompanied by music.
Bob Dylan’s unrivaled output was constructed and developed upon an attention to history, a keen sense of the human condition, a healthy dose of irreverence, and an interminable need for change. In the course of over 50 years, Dylan has spearheaded the Greenwich Village folk revival; embodied the musical courier of the Civil Rights Movement’s ideals; moved Allen Ginsberg to tears through the power of song; defiantly inflamed an arena full of pissed off folkies, audibly directing his electric band to “Play it fucking loud”; introduced The Beatles to weed; recorded three albums as a born-again Christian in the ‘80s; and continues to tour and record to this day. Needless to say, Bob Dylan does not give a shit; he didn’t even show up to receive his Nobel Prize. So why award an irritable, gravel-voiced old man with such a high honor? The words, man.
I spent approximately three hours digging through the dense layering of Dylan’s catalog, until I reached the core and found the one song that I feel best illustrates his heightened literary senses. My wary, not-entirely-sure choice? 1962’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” At the ripe age of 21, Dylan wrote a song to end all songs; an ode to the innate human trait of resilience, “A Hard Rain’s” socially aware underpinnings, extensive survey of human nature in the ‘60s, and poetic prowess solidifies Dylan’s enduring reign as America’s foremost songwriter.
In September of 1962, Dylan debuted “A Hard Rain” live. Concurrently, the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing, hordes of young men were stripped of innocence in Vietnam, and in October—one month after “A Hard Rain’s” debut—Soviet nuclear missiles were found in Cuba. Despite being written months before the Cuban Missile Crisis, many perceived “A Hard Rain” as a protest song against nuclear proliferation. While the warning of impending doom found in each verse’s refrain is oddly suggestive of nuclear fallout, I view “Hard Rain” as a broader reaction to the turmoil that plagued Dylan’s surroundings. If you analyze Dylan’s early songs under the restricting scope of “protest songs,” you’re simply bypassing their true magic: a myriad of viable interpretations.
Clocking in at around seven minutes and consisting of five long verses with no choruses, “A Hard Rain” isn’t your archetypal Lennon-McCartney tune. Displaying Dylan’s tendency to revive and reconstruct the archaic, the song’s question-and-answer lyrical structure between a parental figure and son borrows from the 17th century Scottish ballad, “Lord Randall.” Dylan sings the dialogue of both characters, but it is unclear if either is purposely reflective of him. In what seems to be a reunion of sorts, the “blue-eyed son” relays his epic journey overrun by eye-opening situations of both hardship and prosperity. In the first verse we hear of the protagonist trudging through “sad forests” and “dead oceans,” perhaps signifying the ongoing consequence of pollution. The Judgment Day-esque imagery that encompasses the song’s world is a result of Dylan’s employment of paradox in lines such as, “Ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken.” Each line is as potent as the next and interestingly enough Dylan himself stated that all the lyrics were taken from the first lines of songs he thought he would never have time to write. Bits of social commentary are dispersed in jarring lines such as “I met a white man who walked a black dog,” but then contrasted with the optimistic, “I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow.” This deviating line begs the question: Is this “hard rain” the imminent ruin caused by reactionary politics or is it simply a metaphorical heavy rainfall that will wash away adversity?
Dylan’s unsurpassed songwriting capacity is wholly rendered in the song’s final cathartic verse. The protagonist decides to abandon home once more before the rain arrives to deliver a message of hope to “the depths of the deepest black forest.” This forest is the epitome of destitution as evident from the discreetly complex line, “Where black is the color, where none is the number.” The song’s “blue-eyed son” was the perpetual source of light that the ‘60s desperately needed to eradicate darkness. “A Hard Rain” condensed the consciousness of a certain time and place into a poignant anthem that only a freethinking observer like Dylan could write. Moving, poetic, and utterly magical, I truly believe an otherworldly presence tapped into Dylan to produce the song’s concluding lines that disclose the protagonist’s plan for distributing his humanity to the masses. “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 so I return to my opening question, “Who is Bob Dylan?” My answer? Bob Dylan.