If you are of a certain age, the title of this piece will ring a bell and you’ll automatically complete the line. The song, A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall’, the title of Bob Dylan’s epic ballad of 1962, is perhaps his best known song. Those who recall it will remember the question and answer form, apocalyptic message and length. I feel like I’ve known this song all my life though it’s not a song I care to play these days. But now that old earworm has been firmly replanted, after watching Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Review: A Bob Dylan Story on Netflix recently. The previously unseen footage of Dylan’s performances during this concert tour is riveting. There are many annoying and fake aspects of the film: I was gullible enough to believe I was watching an actual documentary. In a world where fake news dominates the media and lying politicians are believed, you might say, so what, it’s only a film. What stays with me most is the strong performance of Dylan, appearing in that 1975 road tour face painted as a rock star/clown/kabuki performer, as he energetically belts out a stunning and ominous performance of Hard Rain. No more spoilers, except this small film clip.
In the meantime, I’m wondering how we might rejig this foreboding Dylan ballad, which was adapted from traditional troubadour folk ballads with the same question and answer format, in particular the English- Scottish lyrical song, Lord Randall.¹ Perhaps my new version could go along these lines:
And what did you see, my brown eyed girl,
And what did you see when you opened that URL?
I saw one thousand dead fish, in a dried up old river,
A mountain of plastic, afloat on an ocean,
The ice covered mountains, were crying from melting
I saw ancient green forests, bulldozed for more profit
The skies turned red, the houses were burning
Coal was dug up, the planet was dying
Men who were lying, the people believing
Wise men were writing but no one was reading
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard rain’s a gonna fall. Add some more verses of your own, at least another 6 minutes worth. The choice is endless and you don’t even need to lie. Time to bring back the protest song.
¹ For those interested in musicology, follow this link to a version of Lord Randall, with lyrics.
Australians and New Zealanders will be celebrating ANZAC Day today, a national holiday which commemorates all Australians and New Zealanders who served and died in wars and conflicts, with a particular focus on the landing of the ANZACs at Gallipoli, Turkey on April 25 1915. Coincidentally, April 25 is also significant in the Italian calendar as it marks theFesta Della Liberazione (Liberation Day), also known as Anniversario della Resistenza (Anniversary of the Resistance), an Italian national holiday. Italian Liberation Day commemorates the end of the Italian Civil War, the partisans who fought in the Resistance, and the end of Nazi occupation of the country during WW2. In most Italian cities, the day will include marches and parades. Most of the Partisans and Italian veterans of WW2 are now deceased: very few Italians would have first hand memories of that era.
One of the more accessible documents from the partigiani era of the 1940s is the well-known song,Bella Ciao, which has been adopted by resistance movements throughout the world since then. The original Partisan version is included here. Open this clip: you can find the lyrics in English and Italian at the end of this post.
Many Italian versions, including this modern rendition by the Modena City Ramblers, have appeared over the years, while international adaptations include punk, psychedelic and folk versions in many languages. A Kurdish version was revived after an ISIS attack in 2014, and the Anarchist movement has also appropriated the song. Popular folk songs are often derivative and evolutionary: the history of BellaCiao makes a fascinating study in itself. There are two threads to follow here. The original version of this song dates back to the 1850s: the first written version appeared in 1906 which was sung by women workers in the risaie, or rice paddies of Northern Italy. The lyrics concern the harsh working conditions of the Mondine. The fascinating rice workers version can be heard here by Giovanna Daffini, recorded in 1962.¹
”The Mondine or Mondariso were female seasonal workers employed in Northern Italy’s rice fields, especially in Lombardia, Piedmont, Emilia Romagna and Veneto. Their task was to remove weeds that could stunt the growth of rice plants. Working conditions were extremely hard, as the job was carried out by spending the whole day bent over, often bare-foot, with legs immersed in water; malaria was not uncommon, as mosquitoes were widespread. Moreover shifts were long and women were paid significantly less than men. For these reasons since early in the 20th century, mondine started to organise themselves to fight for some basic rights, in particular to limit shifts to 8 hours a day.’
The other thread concerns the euphony of the song itself. The much older women’s version, a slower folkloric piece, reflects the plight of the women rice field weeders in their struggle for better working conditions. The 1940s partisan version became more masculine and heroic, despite the sombre sentiments expressed in the lyrics. Most of the modern versions sound Russian, revolutionary, or defiant. Slower versions suggest Yiddish as well as gypsy roots, which may indicate the melodic path of this song during the 19th century. I’ve selected two more versions which reflect these latter impressions. They can be heard here and here.
The partigiani make fitting heroes for Liberation Day: no one would deny that their struggle was courageous and honourable. However, one might question the level of mytholgising when it comes to patriotic days such as Liberation Day. The day was initiated by Alcide De Gasperi, the Prime Minister of Italy between 1945 to 1953. It could be seen as a very astute political move to create a national holiday centred around liberation.² It signified a break with Italy’s fascist past, an era spanning 25 years, as well as assisting the new Italian government establish a stable democracy.
Parallels may be drawn between the idealisation of the ItalianPartisans and the Australian and New Zealand soldiers of World War 1. The stories and the images of those struggles are often used to boost a sense of national identity and patriotism in both countries.
¹ Giovanna Daffini (22 April 1914 – 7 July 1969) was an Italian singer associated with the Nuovo Canzoniere Italiano movement. Born in the province of Mantua, she started associating with travelling musicians from an early age. During the rice-growing season she worked in the rice-growing districts of Novara and Vercelli where she learnt the folk-songs that afterwards made her famous. In 1962 she recorded the song “Alla mattina appena alzata”, a version of Bella Ciao, for the musicologists Gianni Bosio and Roberto Leydi.