"A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" is a song written by Bob Dylan in the summer of 1962. It was first recorded in Columbia Records' Studio A on December 6, 1962, for his second album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. The lyrical structure is based on the question and answer form of traditional ballads such as Lord Randall. Dylan has stated that all of the lyrics were taken from the initial lines of songs that "he thought he would never have time to write."
On September 22, 1962, Dylan appeared for the first time at Carnegie Hall as part of an all-star hootenanny. His three-song set marked the first public performance of "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall," a complex and powerful song built upon the question-and-answer refrain pattern of the traditional British ballad "Lord Randall", published by Francis Child.
One month later, on October 22, U.S. President John F. Kennedy appeared on national television to announce the discovery of Soviet missiles on the island of Cuba, initiating the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the sleeve notes on the Freewheelin' album, Nat Hentoff would quote Dylan as saying that he wrote "A Hard Rain" in response to the Cuban Missile Crisis: "Every line in it is actually the start of a whole new song. But when I wrote it, I thought I wouldn't have enough time alive to write all those songs so I put all I could into this one."
In actuality, Dylan had written the song more than a month before the crisis broke. Nevertheless, the song remained relevant through the years because of its broader message: the imagery suggests injustice, suffering, rising seas, pollution and warfare. Folk singer Pete Seeger interpreted the line "When the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison" as referring to when a young person suddenly wants to leave his home, but then qualified that by saying, "People are wrong when they say 'I know what he means.'"
"No, it's not atomic rain, it's just a hard rain. It isn't the fallout rain. I mean some sort of end that's just gotta happen ... In the last verse, when I say, 'the pellets of poison are flooding the waters,' that means all the lies that people get told on their radios and in their newspapers."
"When I got back from India, and got to the West Coast, there's a poet, Charlie Plymell - at a party in Bolinas — played me a record of this new young folk singer. And I heard "Hard Rain," I think. And wept. 'Cause it seemed that the torch had been passed to another generation. From earlier bohemian, or Beat illumination. And self-empowerment."
Although Dylan may have first played the song to friends, "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" was formally premiered at Carnegie Hall on September 22, 1962, as part of a hootenanny organized by Pete Seeger. Seeger recalled: "I had to announce to all the singers, 'Folks, you're gonna be limited to three songs. No more. 'Cause we each have ten minutes apiece.' And Bob raised his hand and said, 'What am I supposed to do? One of my songs is ten minutes long.'"
Dylan featured the song regularly in concerts in the years since he premiered it, and there have been several dramatic performances. An October 1963 performance at Carnegie Hall was released on The Bootleg Series Vol. 7: No Direction Home, while another New York City performance, recorded one year later, appeared on The Bootleg Series Vol. 6: Bob Dylan Live 1964, Concert at Philharmonic Hall. Dylan performed the song in August 1971 at The Concert for Bangladesh, organized by George Harrison and Ravi Shankar. The concert was organized for East Pakistan refugee relief (now independent Bangladesh) after the 1970 Bhola cyclone and during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. On December 4, 1975, at the Forum de Montreal, Canada, Dylan recorded an upbeat version of the song, which appears on The Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Revue album. On May 23, 1994, Dylan performed the song at "The Great Music Experience" festival in Japan, backed by a 90-piece symphony orchestra conducted by Michael Kamen. At the end of 2007, Dylan recorded a new version of "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" exclusively for Expo Zaragoza 2008 world fair, scheduled to open on June 8, 2008, to highlight the Expo theme of "water and sustainable development". As well as choosing local-band Amaral to record a version of the song in Spanish, Dylan's new version ended with a few spoken words about his "being proud to be a part of the mission to make water safe and clean for every human being living in this world." Patti Smith performed the song with orchestral accompaniment at the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony on December 10, 2016, to commemorate Dylan receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature. Dylan did not attend the ceremony to accept the award.
Bob Weir and Phil Lesh performed it on their Bobby and Phil DuoTour at Radio City Music Hall , New York City, March2, 2018.
Photographer Mark Edwards took a series of photographs illustrating the lyrics of the song which were exhibited in many locations such as the United Nations headquarters. These were published in a book in 2006.