FORUM CONTRIBUTION BY Alessandro Portelli
In 1964, I was given the opportunity to play one record of American folk music a week on the all-Italy state radio station. The first song I chose was Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” I still brag about having been the first to play Bob Dylan on the Italian radio.
At age 80, Bob Dylan has been part of the life of several generations across the world. I was born in the same year as Dylan, and I first heard his voice in 1963, when I brought home The Times They Are a-Changin’. The Italian singer-songwriter star Francesco De Gregori — a Bob Dylan fan and translator — learned about him from an older brother who gave him a record of Blowin’ in the Wind around 1966. In Shillong, India, I heard about the local rock singer Lu Majaw, who turned into a priest of the Bob Dylan cult after he heard the same song in Calcutta in 1965. Silvia Baraldini, a revolutionary activist in 1960s America, first heard Dylan in Nashville Skyline (1969). Alessandro Carrera, one of the finest international Bob Dylan scholars and critics, writes: “I have been listening to Dylan since 1970.” Marco Rossari, a 1973-born author and translator, first heard him in 1979, and bought his first album, Oh Mercy, in 1989. Gaia Resta, a 1979-born teacher and translator, discovered Dylan in 1993, at age 14, “from some TV program where they played excerpts from Rolling Thunder Revue Tour.”
I remember the thrill when I first realized that the opening lines of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” (“Oh where have you been, my blue-eyed son / Where have you been, my darling young one?”) were identical to those of a ballad I had heard as “Lord Randal” on a Harry Belafonte record six years before and a Ewan McColl album I bought in 1961 (“O whaur hae ye been, Lord Randal my son? / O whaur hae ye been, my bonnie young man?”), and on a 1963 record by Italian folksinger Sandra Mantovani, as “Il Testamento dell’Avvelenato” (“the last will of the poisoned young man”) in Italian (“Where did you go last night, my flowery and gentle son?”).
The ballad is first mentioned in an Italian play in 1629 and in a Scottish manuscript in 1715, and is included in the canonic collections of English and Scottish Popular Ballads by Francis James Child (1882-88) and Costantino Nigra’s Canti popolari del Piemonte (1888). Both have spread across Europe and the Atlantic and lived on in oral tradition into the third millennium. It was collected in Northern Italy as late as 2005; in 1973, I recorded a version in a working-class neighborhood in Rome, sung by a Southern Italian farm worker. On the one hand, the connection between the ballad and its long, cross-Atlantic history gave me a sense of the depths and width of Bob Dylan’s connection to the historical past. On the other hand, as it has stayed with me all these years, “Hard Rain” has represented both an apocalyptic vision of the future and key to the meaning of contemporary events as they unfolded. It made a lot of sense to me that the song I had chosen in 1964 to inaugurate my brief radio career would also be the one chosen by Patti Smith to celebrate Bob Dylan at the Nobel Prize ceremony in 2016.
All Bob Dylan scholars and critics recognize the connection between the incipit of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” and “Lord Randal”; yet, in most cases, they go no further. Thus, Alessandro Carrera comments that the ballad “has evidently very little to do with what Bob Dylan made of it.” The dialogue between Dylan’s classic and the ballad, however, goes much deeper than that.
Both “Lord Randal” and “Hard Rain” are dialogues between a mother and a son who leaves home, walks and crawls through dangerous unknown lands and deadly encounters, discovers evil, violence, deception, death, and comes home to tell the tale and die. In the ballad, the young man has been out hunting in the wild woods, has been poisoned by his “true love,” and asks his mother to make up his dying bed before he makes his final will. “Hard Rain” resets the story to a different context and time, but here, too, the hero tells about the horrors he has encountered out in the wilderness and prepares to sing his last song before he starts sinking. Both the ballad and the song are about the relationship between the home and the wilderness, the safe familiar present and the dangers of the alien future, the meaning of history as possibility or nightmare. Much of the power of Dylan’s masterpiece, then, lies in the way in which it incorporates the historical depth of the ancient ballad, projects it toward a modern and post-modern imagination, and illuminates both. It springs out of a magical moment in which Bob Dylan was between worlds and in touch with both, still part of the folk music revival but ready to leave it for shores unknown.
Here, however, I would like to focus less on what song and ballad have in common than on an apparently minor yet revealing difference. In the over two hundred English and Italian variants of “Lord Randal” that I have been able to consult, the hero is “bonnie” in Scotland, “handsome” in Kentucky and North Carolina, “gentle” and “flowery” in Italy. But never “blue-eyed.”
The blue-eyed son, like a new-born baby, has the clear eyes of innocence: he does no evil, indeed he does not even know that there is such a thing as evil in the world (“we never thought we could get very old. . . the thought never hit that the one road we traveled would ever shatter or split,” he sang about his youth in “Bob Dylan’s Dream”). The loss of innocence as the price for adult experience is a classic theme in American literature: the naive adolescent hero goes out into the world, like Huckleberry Finn down the Mississippi, and is initiated to the knowledge and the presence of evil and death. In his initiation journey, Dylan’s blue-eyed son meets icons of innocence violated: a newborn baby surrounded by wolves, young children wielding guns and sharp swords, a child near a dead pony. The one road he travels on shatters into “six crooked highways” and the idyllic “home in the valley” becomes the gothic “damp dirty prison.”
Like Emerson’s eyeball, the blue-eyed son’s pupil is transparent — but only in one direction: it denotes the inner purity of his soul, but no “misty currents” (Emerson) connect it to nature outside. The mountains are “misty,” the oceans are dead, the forests are “sad,” reminiscent less of Emerson’s benevolent woods than of the “wild wood” where Lord Randal meets his fate, or even of those “dark, demonic woods” out of which Dylan himself says he has come. About the same time as Emerson found vision and illumination in the woods, Nathaniel Hawthorne reminded his contemporaries that “[t]he founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.” The mouth of a graveyard is where the blue-eyed hero steps at the beginning of his journey; and the “damp dirty prison” is what he will meet in the end.
But there is more. Not long after Dylan sang of the blue-eyed son, Toni Morrison debuted with The Bluest Eye (1970): the story of an African American child obsessed with the dream of having blue eyes, like the child icons she sees in movies and ads. As a rule, Black people do not have blue eyes. Which is why, in their gospel version of “Hard Rain,” the Staple Singers change it to “my wondering son” (2015), and Jimmy Cliff’s 2011 reggae version is about a “brown-eyed,” not to a “blue-eyed” son.
Bob Dylan’s blue-eyed son, then, must be white. The difference, however, is less about color than about the expectations that go with it. Black children and mothers do not need journeys into the unknown in order to know what awaits them in the wilderness outside. In Bruce Springsteen’s “Black Cowboys,” little Rainey Williams makes his way to the playground through spaces as filled with danger and death as those discovered by Dylan’s hero; his mother does not ask him who he met, what he saw, what he heard — she just wants him to come home and stay inside. Unlike the mother in Dylan’s song, Black parents speak to their children before they leave home. As mayor Bill DeBlasio, who has a Black son, explained after the police killed Eric Garner in New York: “[My wife] Chirlane and I have had to talk to [our son] Dante for years, about the dangers he may face . . . we’ve had to literally train him, as families have all over this city for decades, in how to take special care in any encounter he has with the police officers who are there to protect him.” And Bruce Springsteen’s American Skin: “On these streets, Charles / You’ve got to understand the rules.”
Only those who believe in innocence — their own, and others’ — only those who leave home believing that they have rights and are safe — can be shocked by the revelation of violence and evil. Student activists of the 60s were surprised when they realized that the police didn’t beat only the workers but them, too: “You know, the big demonstrations were those of the workers, not us students, so we were totally naïve. At first the march was playful, a holiday, a game. Then it turned out that it was no game at all. They gave us a real serious drubbing.” Or the tragic events, the killing of a young man, the police riots during the 2001 Big 8 conference in Genoa, when the “gentle” and “flowery” young people of the third millennium lost their “innocence”:
We were out in the street, dancing, playing living theater and all. They come at us from behind. . . . And I couldn’t understand what was going on. . . . I mean, shedding all at once the belief of twenty-one years that the police is there to protect you. . . . I was wondering — why are they attacking us? . . . Here I am, dancing, with sunflowers in my hair, and you beat me up? Why?
Of course, Bob Dylan wasn’t thinking of Genoa, 2001, when he wrote “Hard Rain” in 1963. But he possessed the vision that can turn a historical moment into a timeless archetype — which is, in the end, the “inner substance” that makes a song a folk song and keeps it alive. Bob Dylan can wreak this wonder without even having to wait for the years to pass. He hardly ever writes “topical” songs, and when he does they are not his best; but out of historic events — the murder of Medgar Evers, the lonesome death of Hattie Carroll, the atomic nightmare of the 50s and 60s — he distills warnings for all time. His songs never lose touch with immediate events, but reach for the deep forces that shape them. They consign the news of the day to the long duration of archetype or myth, so that the story of the present foreshadows that of the future. The “guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children” announce the child soldiers of the civil war in Sierra Leone; and we have all seen “a white man who walked a black dog” in the images from Abu Ghraib. The “one hundred drummers whose hands were a-blazin’” foreshadow the police squadrons marching in formation in Genoa, the dark visors of their helmets lowered to cover their eyes because, as we know, “the executioner’s face is always well hidden.”
The twenty-one-year-old Bob Dylan of 1963 stays with me as we both turn 80, and still helps me make sense of the tragedies of today. In a widely-seen set of photographs, African migrants (many from the former Italian colony of Eritrea) face helmeted police on the boulders by the shore of Ventimiglia, near the French-Italian border. There they are camped precariously, waiting in vain to cross over. Today’s world migrants are the ones who literally walk and crawl over crooked highways, step in the middle of deserts and sad forests, stand in front of oceans filled with death, are met by police with bleeding hammers or white men walking black dogs, whisper and speak unheeded with broken tongues and end up in damp dirty prisons. The faces of the police are well-hidden, but those of the migrants are clear, and they all have in common one thing: their eyes are brown.