Sometime around the beginning of the pandemic I listened to Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" with new ears, and I could not stop playing the song. I used to think of it as a prophecy of doom for a broken and unjust society, but it's also a statement of defiance in the face of lies. It summed up so much of what I was feeling.
Here in New Jersey, in the epicenter of the first wave, people were dying in fearsome numbers while the president was saying it was no big deal and it'd all be over by Easter. Political conservatives I knew back home expressed zero shock or alarm about me living in the worst hit area, since doing so would have forced them to acknowledge that this was a problem. As a middle class white guy it gave me a new feeling all too familiar to others: my country had abandoned me.
Dylan's song is about exposing the reality so many refuse to see. The "damp dirty prison" the "branch with blood that kept dripping," the "pellets of poison." He proclaims at the end that he is going to speak the terrible truth others refuse to see from the mountaintops until he sinks into the ocean. I would listen to this song and sing along, drawing strength from its declarations.
My obsession drew me to covers. The first was Bryan Ferry's great up-tempo version, which I am sure inspired Dylan's similarly amped take during the Rolling Thunder tour in 1975. Even better is the 1968 cover by the Staples Singers.
They add gospel overtones, giving the song a call and response structure that increases its emotional potency. Dylan's angry young man screed is a transformed into a church sermon. There's a great interplay of voices on the leads with the young Mavis, her voice so cutting, and older Pops, his voice wrapped in its usual warmth. The strong, repetitive beat makes the responses a sort of mantra. It best matches how I have listened to this song this year: as a prayer.
Almost a year later it's a prayer I still feel compelled to give. The hard rain keeps falling, with another 4,000 gone every day and a fascist insurrection to boot. Here's hoping I won't feel compelled to pray it a year from now.