Dylan Covers Week No 13: A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall - Jimmy Cliff
Well we've had all sorts of Dylan covers - folk, rock, pop, soul, gospel, but perhaps it's right that the most apocalyptic of all Dylan's songs is sung by the man who composed and sung what Dylan once described as the best protest he had ever heard - "Vietnam", and is reggae, the modern pop form that leans most heavily on the Old Testament for it's imagery.
Over the years, we have come to realise that Jimmy Cliff's sweet vocals don't fudge on the toughness of his Jamaican life or on the big issues. You can't miss the seriousness of his intent here, as he delivers a sermon on the hardships of the world. To begin with, he changes the colour of the eyes of the opening line from blue to brown, so that the song explicitly becomes a song about racism, and the modern world, the old testament imagery resonating with the Rastafarian traditions of his Jamaica origins:
"Oh, where have you been, my brown-eyed son? where have you been, my darling young one?"
Then Dylan's question and answer rhetoric allows him to indulge in a Homeric list of images of injustice that seem, like all good Old Testament prophecies (don't forget Dylan wrote this in 1962!), to all be coming true today:
"......I've been out in front of a dozen dead oceans.... ....I saw a black branch with blood that kept dripping.... ....I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children ....heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world..... ....heard one person starve, I heard many people laughing heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley.......
......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 finally, he's going to tell it like it is:
"....and what'll you do now my brown-eyed son?
what'll you do now my darling young one?
I'm a-goin' back out 'fore the rain starts a-falling 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 colour, 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 hear it then I'll stand on the ocean until I start sinking and I'll know my song well before I start singing
it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard...."
but here, at the crunch, he crucially changes the words from:
"it's a hard rain's gonna fall" to
"....it's a hard rain is a-falling".
Meaning: the apocalypse is here!
And that's the thing about Jimmy Cliff, he's always told it how it is.