“Hard Rain” is interesting for its lack of rhyming. Many of us might associate it with poetry and presume rhyme is central to its memorable sound, its cadence and repetition carry it along in a sing-song fashion, the kind we may associate with folk and ballad. And then when we hear the likes of Allen Ginsberg speak of it on No Direction Home as a the work that passed the poetic baton from one generation to the next, so rhyme might just be what we assume to characterize such a momentous transition. Ginsberg even says he wept the first time he heard it.
Here’s video clip of Ginsberg speaking of poetry and quoting the line from “Hard Rain,” “I’ll know my song well before I start singing”:
“Poetry is words that are empowered to that make your hair stand on end,” he says. And this Dylan song does do exactly that to the tuned in listener willing to really take in and on the accumulating images of beauty become wasteland.
The song is a conversation, and the repeated question by the parent figure, mother, father, Mother Earth (the blued son, humanity?, the one who responds to each question) repeats the “one”/”son” terminal rhyme beginning each verse, for example:
Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?
Where is the first question, what did you see and hear, who did you meet, the questions that follow, all asking something about the past. The chilling, hair stand on end question is “What will you do now”?
Before that question, there are rhymes, mostly word ending -in sounds Dylan is good for, e.g., “drippin”/”a-bleedin.” The third verse has several of them. But Dylan chooses words that give him freedom to match them in sound. This line,
Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world
for instance, contains the shaky assonance of “roar” and “world.” And Dylan knows how he can sing, pronounce them just for the right unity.
The answer to the question about the boy’s future, which may be just within reach of a longer future that prophecies the hard rain that will fall, starts to include more range of rhyme:
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’
Some of it is from repeated words, where, where, where . . .and some internal, “a-goin'” and “a-fallen'” and some alliteration, “people,” “pellets,” “poison,” “prison,” and one now terminal, the best rhyme “hidden,”/”prison.” It’s not perfect, “s” vs “d” prevent that, but the double assonance of “pris” with “hid” and “on” with “en” is magnificent, while it also creates the chilling image and perhaps a major theme with “hidden prison,” the one we live in that is our body, the one we can’t see but live in everyday, the possibilities are endless.
This song is a work of art. Here is the Live at Town Hall live version audio from 1963. Dylan last sang this song just this past July–he knows his song well now, knew it then, and he keeps singing it.