The saying goes, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” but perhaps they have never witnessed Bob Dylan penning a song about the ensuing Cuban Missile Crisis. An onlooker who was there when the songwriter began working away at the fantastic ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ said the song, “Roared right out the typewriter”.
When the troubadour was searching for cognisance in the ways of the world at the New York Library, he was incidents like the Missile Crisis echoed throughout history; remarking: “After a while you become aware of nothing but a culture of feeling, of black days, of schism, evil for evil, the common destiny of the human being getting thrown off course. It’s all one long funeral song.”
Full to the brim with biblical apocalyptic imagery and the kind of poignantly double-edged lyricism that only Dylan could muster, the song was recorded in one uproarious take and hasn’t spent much time out of the studio since. Such is the scope of the song, the brilliant universal depth that Dylan lends to the specifics of life, it has never lost its profound power and as such continues to be covered endlessly to this day.
While in his memoir Dylan might lament that “most of the cover versions of my songs seemed to take them out into left field somewhere,” provided they have the emotional mandate down, he’s willing to allow creative wiggle room. As he also said about Jimi Hendrix’s sonically different but emotionally similar version of ‘All Along the Watchtower’: “I liked Jimi Hendrix’s record of this and ever since he died I’ve been doing it that way,” he said, adding: “Strange how when I sing it, I always feel it’s a tribute to him in some kind of way.”
Thus, to celebrate the masterful song, we have collated a selection of five of the best covers of the track to date.
The six best covers of Bob Dylan’s ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’:
6. The Staple Singers
The Staple Singers had the best collective pipes in the business. Heralding from Stax records they could lend their stylings to anything and make it soar, not to mention their inherently rhythmic arrangements.
This particular take, however, suffers a little bit from the fact that anything approaching a high-end on the recording sounds a bit tinny in terms of audio fidelity. Other than that, The Staple Singers prove as sweet and soulful as ever, for a song that warrants their poignancy.
5. Leon Russell
Leon Russell may well have been an unheralded star of the era as far as mainstream recognition was concerned, but within musical circles, he was a hitmaking champion cherished by many fellow musicians.
For his take on the track, he lends it a similar unfurling energy to his iconic song ‘Shoot Out On The Plantation’. The vibrant country-inspired melody whisks it along nicely, but some of the profundity of the original finds itself engulfed.
4. Joan Baez
Owing to Dylan’s complicated relationship with Baez, it’s difficult to know the state of their bond at the time that Baez had a go at the track on Farewell Angelina in 1965.
Her cover is rather more tender than the original, and while she could sweetly sing the phonebook and you’d be willing to listen, the soft edges to the song seem to let the mandate slide slightly.
3. Laura Marling
Few people are better at covers than Laura Marling, and absolutely no disrespect to her own gilded back catalogue is intended by saying that. She is simply a musician who knows her way around a song and has the talent to make it soar thereafter.
For her cover, Marling seizes upon the escalating nature of the song that other versions seem to miss. This inherent message of the song is a building one and Marling brilliantly layers the track to culminating blow. It’s a fantastic rendition, even if it doesn’t quite thresh in the same bottomless pit as the original.
2. Patti Smith
“I hadn’t forgotten the words that were now a part of me. I was simply unable to draw them out,” Smith wrote in the New Yorker, but her mishap is one of the most touching moments of live music that you’ll find. It is a twinkling that imbues everything that follows with humanised grandeur.
She pours not only the unrivalled poignancy of the song into her performance but seemingly her adulation of Bob Dylan too. The whole thing has such a captivating effect that you scarcely realise that the swelling instrumentation in the background or that it only started with a simple strum.
1. Bryan Ferry
With all that is said above, why isn’t Patti Smith number one? And why has the rather obvious choice won? Simply put, Dylan’s one-take masterpiece can never be bettered. It’s the sort of track that Dylan once borrowed the following Hoagy Carmichael song for: “And then it happened, that queer sensation that this melody was bigger than me. Maybe I hadn’t written it all. The recollection of how, when and where it all happened became vague as the lingering strains hung in the rafters in the studio. I wanted to shout back at it, ‘maybe I didn’t write you, but I found you’.”
Therefore, with Dylan’s Promethean pluck from the ether accounted for, the prize has to go to anyone who dares to reinvent it but returns that all-important mandate that Dylan correctly identifies as key. If you want to listen to ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ then you’re probably going to just listen to Dylan’s, but if you’re after something similar then the manic reinvention of the sui generis Ferry is a great place to turn to. And what’s more, he deserves kudos for identifying that his sonic innovation that was bound to blaze into the future, ought to be carrying some of the introspection of a master along with it.