Bob Dylan has plainly decided that the time has come to set things in order. The work began with the sale of his 6,000-item archive in 2016 and continued when the artist sold most of his core intellectual property rights for eye-watering sums to Universal (2020) and Sony (2022). Yes, he’s still touring, still writing songs, and even has a new book out on songwriting.1 In fact, if the vast scope of the Dylan Archive tells us anything, it’s that the artist has never stopped his alchemical work in the laboratory of the folk tradition. Still, the time is coming when the pen will drop and that unlovely voice will be entombed in vinyl, tape, digital bits, and the extravagant acetates T-Bone Burnett recently created.2

Dylan’s artistic estate planning actually began, however, with one of his first masterpieces: a young man’s furious will and testament crafted in the shadow of global destruction. Composed in the summer of 1962 and released a year later on the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” has been a touchstone for the songwriter. It has been featured in 457 live performances, morphed through a nearly endless stream of covers, and reached its apotheosis when an overwhelmed Patti Smith stumbled over its lyrics at Dylan’s 2016 Nobel ceremony. Dylan devised the song by reimagining the traditional folk ballad, “Lord Randal,” about a young nobleman who recounts his will to his mother after realizing he’s been poisoned. The folk tune, and Dylan’s reinvention of it, are all about death and suffering, the pull of the past and a steely-eyed resolve found within the narrow horizon of extinction.

Alessandro Portelli’s Hard Rain: Bob Dylan, Oral Cultures, and the Meaning of History takes Dylan’s song as a singular “case study” in what the Nobel committee cryptically called the songwriter’s creation of “new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Or, as Portelli more deftly describes it, “a multidisciplinary investigation on history and memory through the prism of the primary orality of folklore, the secondary orality of mass media, and the conversation between them” (8). “A Hard Rain” strikes so deeply because it’s a song both in and about history. Its five breathless verses race to bear witness ahead of looming disaster, while nevertheless pausing to offer “a powerful meta-historical reflection about time, change, and the meaning of history” (10). Dylan’s early masterpiece thus not only encapsulates key elements of his budding abilities as a songwriter, but also grapples with the memory work this ever-morphing song has performed across oceans, languages, and centuries.

Initially, I feared such an edifice might groan—that hanging an entire book on a single song, no matter how powerful, would not only break the butterfly, but release an entire swarm of slim monographs like this one. Portelli, however, brings an almost unique set of critical skills to the project, mixing folklore, sociology, media studies, historiography, close reading, and a sweeping comparative range that encompasses Scotland, Appalachia, New England, and Italy. In fact, the book begins by tracing Dylan’s source text to both “Lord Randal” and another variant that dates to at least 1629 in northern Italy called “Il testamento dell’avvelenato” (the poisoned man’s lament). Portelli calls this recognizable yet mobile song about love, betrayal, parenthood, modernity, and tradition, “one of the most important creations of European and American folk cultures of the last five hundred years” (31). It is a piece of cultural heritage that, in his reading, becomes a Euro-American archetype, a “musical memory so deeply internalized that it can be freely used and changed, in the creative moment, perhaps without even being aware of it” (33).

That’s a grand, unwieldy claim, albeit one that quickly fades in the wake of an utterly compelling reading of the older ballad variants alongside Dylan’s reinvention of them. Drawing on his skills as a folklorist, for example, Portelli concisely captures the very specific ways that Dylan’s idiosyncratic studio and performance work both transforms and preserves the folk tradition: “Part of what makes Dylan different…is how he strives to be permanent as ‘text’ and ephemeral as performance, thus placing himself where only an artist of the voice can stand, at the crossroads of the written or recorded artifact (the permanent past) and the oral performance (the evolving present and future)” (54). This, in turn, is figured in the song’s own interplay between oral and written testaments and in the balance it strikes between the terrors of the present and desire for a livable future.

I found equally compelling Portelli’s careful explication of Dylan’s early poetics. When asked about “A Hard Rain,” the songwriter claimed that the threat of nuclear war required that he empty the riches of his imagination onto the page before they were vaporized: “Every line in it is actually the start of a whole song. But when I wrote it, I thought I wouldn’t have enough time alive to write all those songs so I put all I could into this one.”3 Portelli traces with exquisite detail how this actually works and the uncanny effects it produces, from Dylan’s utterly original use of anaphora to his manipulation of V-I chords to create a song that “seems to end at each line, then…begin again, so that we do not know where it will really end” (74–75). In its very form, the song thus wards off the hard rain, each unexpected restart a way of announcing that death has not quite come, but lurks still at the end of each hypnotic line.

Similarly surprising moments fill this slim volume, which is both accessibly written and yet rigorously documented.4 There’s a terrific chapter, for example, on the ways in which “Hard Rain” and its antecedents manipulate tense and time to create a wide array of effects, while another section deftly explains how the ballad form itself works as a garden of forking paths, spawning new variants across time, place, and language, some of which lead to widely different endings. And a chapter called “Talking Atomic Blues” puts Dylan’s own writing in a careful context, showing how “A Hard Rain” clicks together with the other apocalyptic songs on Freewheelin’ while also finding its way toward a new kind of sonic historiography. The tight structure of the book, however, sometimes falls slack with a series of digressions on things such as the immigrant crisis in Italy and Dylan fans in India that should have been trimmed. The book’s closing appendix, a haphazard reading of “Murder Most Foul” clearly dashed off on the heels of the song’s release, distracts from the thesis and uncomfortably elides the vast bulk of Dylan’s career between 1963 and 2020. The strength of a book like this emerges from its narrow focus on a single song and, at times, it feels like Portelli ran short on material.

These are minor quibbles. I struggled with a more serious concern, however: too much focus on apocalypse crowds out the song’s faint, but persistent sense of promise. As Portelli argues, “Lord Randal” and “Il testamento dell’avvelenato” both include a repeating series of anaphoric verses in which the dying son crafts his will, insisting that despite his death, time and the social order will continue. Describing this as modernity’s promise, the book convincingly argues that there is “no apocalypse in the ballad’s vision of history” (109). Dylan, Portelli contends, changes this by injecting a new kind of testament, one that indeed imagines total destruction amid the hard rain of a post-atomic, post-Holocaust world. This makes the song far too pessimistic, while also suggesting why a single-minded focus on this song falters. Yes, the hard rains fall, but Dylan’s blue-eyed son both survives them (unlike poor Lord Randal) and treats them as a gateway to creativity. Rather than merely recounting his legacy, as the dying Randal does, Dylan self-consciously swears to proclaim what he will see in the years to come:

I’ll tell it think it and speak it and breathe it

And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it.

This is not the post-apocalyptic landscape of “Talkin’ World War III Blues,” which Portelli invokes as a key intertext. Instead, it is the open, uncertain promise of the album’s other great song, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which barely gets a mention in the book.

The apocalyptic imagination always tempts us, offering to free us from any responsibility for the future. And it beckons still, even if our hard rain has changed from nuclear war to climate change. “A Hard Rain” is extraordinary because in rewriting the folk tradition, Dylan stubbornly refuses this trap. Instead, he transforms a dying man’s testament from a collection of inert objects to a living document that invites others to see, hear, and make something new from it. Seen in this light, Dylan’s decision to sell his archives feels less like a leave-taking and more like an invitation into the laboratory where he has labored for so long.

Sean Latham
University of Tulsa
Email: sean-latham@utulsa.edu
1.

Bob Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2022).

2.

T Bone Burnett, “Art in the Age of Reproduction,” delivered at the 2022 Americanfest conference (https://americanamusic.org/news/t-bone-burnetts-keynote-speech-americanafest-2022). In this talk, Burnett discusses the new recording format he’s been developing and the decision to use this fabulously expensive technology to record six Dylan songs.

3.

Cited by Nat Hentoff, liner notes, Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Columbia Records, 1963.

4.

The text runs to a concise, digestible 135 pages, with an additional 33 pages of notes affirming the depth of scholarship behind the fast-paced narrative.