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A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Preach

April 23, 2008

To dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free…” – Bob Dylan, Mr. Tambourine Man

One of the ongoing projects of this blog is to link my understanding of songwriting (and great rock songwriting is one of my true passions) with the art of creating sermons.  And my chief influence for thinking critically about the songwriting process is Bob Dylan.  Dylan is marvelous at writing socially conscious protest songs, moving love songs, poetic songs with nonsensical but deeply evocative lyrics, humorous songs, blues, and everything in between.

Today I want to look at Dylan’s poetic style, and specifically at one of his transitional songs that moved him from straightforward storytelling to swirling, evocative poetic imagery.  An early draft of A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall appears on Live at the Gaslight, 1962, so it has been with him essentially from the beginning. Yet it marks a significant step in his career because it transcends folk music as it was traditionally defined and delves into painting powerful, emotional word pictures that evoke a primal, emotional response.

Here are the lyrics, taken from Bobdylan.com:

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.

“A dozen dead oceans.”  Okay, literally we have only named five but Dylan sings of a dozen.  Clearly he moves us out of a literal world and into a world of perception.  This, in my reading, is what “John” does in Revelation.  Most of the imagery is undecipherable on its own, but taken together it paints a stark picture of a world in which judgment is coming.  The “darling young son” (in my reading) seeks in the final verse to find redemption in a community that sees the world in a different light, stands firm in its convictions, and proclaims its message to anyone with ears to hear.  But none of this is done in so many words.  It’s not spoon-fed to us.  Bob assumes our intelligence, and in so doing he manages to abduct our imaginations.

When is the last time you heard a preacher use an image as nonsensical but evocative as “a roomful of men with their hammers a-bleeding?”  Have you ever heard a sermon with swirling imagery that makes no sense literally but grabs your attention and doesn’t let go?

Dylan doesn’t just sing a song here, he creates a world and holds it up for us to see.  Sermons should do that.  We, as preachers, are called to do our best to see the world as God sees it – broken and offered redemption – and to draw the congregation into that vision.  And maybe we occasionally need to lure our listeners in with evocative poetic imagery like white ladders all covered with water, young men wounded by love and by hatred, bleeding hammers, clowns crying in the alley, bloody black branches.

Let the images tell the story.  Sometimes stories are told better with poetry and metaphor than with narrative and verbs.

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