Alessandro Portelli. Bob Dylan, pioggia e veleno: “Hard Rain,” una ballata fra tradizione e modernità. Donzelli Editore, 2018.

REVIEW BY Michele Ulisse Lipparini

If you’re reading these words, it means you’re that kind of Bob Dylan passionate who’s willing to deepen his or her knowledge on the matter. You’ve read bios, you’ve read essays, and you’re serious about it. So you’ve probably read many times that this or that song draws or quotes from or refers to this or that source, this or that song. Usually this is the kind of information we retain in our mental bank of data, but if that’s all we do with it, we are erasing that info at the same time. It becomes a sterile notion. It has no life. Well, if that perspective frustrates you, this is the book you’ve been dreaming of.

Working on a single song, Portelli provides us with a voluminous experience. Now don’t get me wrong, Bob Dylan’ songs are alive. They are about life, they have veins and exude life, but often they keep a certain aura of mystery, which is part of their magic. Meanwhile their author is a real person, not just a persona, and he gathers inputs and draws inspiration from everywhere and anytime. Exegesis is often valuable and even necessary. Portelli walks us through a land where time, space, and culture overlap, and the destination is a memory that, when it exists, is already tradition — not unlike the traditional music that Bob Dylan cherishes and deems immortal.

Something happened, maybe, centuries ago, in Italy, and somebody decided to tell a story, in the ballad form, though where and when exactly the episode took place is not known. It’s a tragic story: a man comes home to his mother and, by what he narrates, she realizes he’s been poisoned by his lover. He’s going to die. So she starts asking him what will he leave and to whom, hence the song’s title, “Il testamento dell’avvelenato” o “L’avvelenato” (“The Poisoned Man’s Will” or also “The Poisoned Man”). The ballad goes on in the form of a dialogue, question and answer, which offers us a parade of situations that build up in a perfect “relative-climax.” That ballad traveled, locally in Italy, from region to region, from dialect to dialect, and eventually through Europe, landing in Great Britain, where, after having gone through a linguistic sieve and a synthesizing process, it became “Lord Randall.” 

What usually happens with traditional songs, especially those that stick around in the collective imaginary, is that they become archetypes, the characters become functions and the tales become symbols. Portelli examines the Italian song’s meaning, but above all its legacy and its trail all the way down to the apocalyptic vision of “A-Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” Intertwining his own memories and experiences as ethnomusicologist (one of Portelli’s many fields) wandering throughout the country recording traditional songs and preserving the oral tradition, the author allows us to time travel and to witness an alchemic development. 

One of the questions I find myself asking more and more frequently, reading Dylan-themed essays — especially those connecting him with ancient Greek and Romance languages cultures — is: was he that well-read when he was that young? Is it possible? Sometimes the descriptions of Dylan’s hyperliterary youth seem a bit of a stretch, yet this is not the case with the thesis introduced in Pioggia e veleno. Bob Dylan places himself — accidentally, or unaware — at the crossroad between tradition (the past) and evolution (the future): this specific song blossoms on a ground that had been fecundated centuries before.

The songwriter stands at the intersection of popular culture and dazzling new poetry, of oral tradition and culture industry (and its reproducibility), of spoken word, live performance, and music. The song is the result of one million steps walked by ten thousand people within an invisible map, people moved by the compass of fate, and then the song becomes a tool to expand that map’s borders. Thanks to Portelli, we’re now able to retrace some of those steps, getting close to the song’s source; we can navigate that ethereal land and meet the blue-eyed boy across time. 

Portelli identifies numerous technical details about the composition of the lyrics that are relevant when comparing the two songs: the use of anaphora and alliteration, for instance. But while the author offers insights about the literary devices, he’s an experienced and educational popularizer and never exceeds in technicalities.

Portelli practices the noble art of digression, but that doesn’t take unnecessary space. On the contrary, it usually produces informative paragraphs or footnotes that add to the overall comprehension of the subject. The digressions are like telltale signs that shed a light on the folk map which leads to the creation of “Hard Rain,” the solid foundation on which Bob Dylan started to draw his own poetic map. And this is the only point where I would respectfully disagree with one concept the author expresses: he says that in the very moment that the songwriter composed this song, he was prodigiously hanging in the balance between two worlds with a power he would never find again. While it is possibly true the young balladeer known as Bob Dylan was in a state of ecstasy, touched by otherworldly perfection, close to the purest folk form (if that’s even a thing), I would say that he has been able to find an equally powerful voice at other moments in his career. He has, for one example, added modernist elements and created a completely new language that has been explored and expanded for decades — but this consideration is of secondary importance in the light of the extensive work of detection presented here.

The book will be published in English soon, by Columbia University Press, and the good news is that it’s a revised and expanded edition with an extra focus on the oral tradition.

It goes without saying that Alessandro Portelli knows his song well before…