The greatest protest song by the greatest protest songwriter of his time: a seven-minute epic that warns against a coming apocalypse while cataloging horrific visions — gun-toting children, a tree dripping blood — with the wide-eyed fervor of John the Revelator. "Every line in it is actually the start of a whole song," Dylan said at that time. "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."
The threat of nuclear war was in the air at the time, as other songs from the Freewheelin' sessions — including "Talkin' World War III Blues" and the anti-fallout-shelter rant "Let Me Die in My Footsteps" — make clear. But this rain was abstract rather than literal. "It's not the fallout rain," Dylan said. "I just mean some sort of end that's just gotta happen."
"A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" — that "a-gonna" was the young Dylan's Woody Guthrie fixation popping out again — began life as a poem, which Dylan likely banged out on a typewriter owned by his buddy (and fellow Greenwich Village dweller) Wavy Gravy. Dylan debuted the song at Carnegie Hall in September 1962, when he was part of a folk-heavy bill in which each act got 10 minutes: "Bob raised his hand and said, 'What am I supposed to do? One of my songs is 10 minutes long,' " said Pete Seeger, the concert's organizer.
"A Hard Rain" is the first public instance of Dylan grappling with the End of Days, a topic that would come to dominate his work. But the tumbling verses of "A Hard Rain" culminate not in catastrophe, but in Dylan describing his task as an artist: to sing out against darkness wherever he sees it — to "tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it" until his lungs burst. "It's beyond genius," says the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir. "I think the heavens opened and something channeled through him."