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Hard Rain

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A thorough examination of a song that continues to ring true 60 years after it was first released. Portelli, an Italian university professor and folk scholar, analyzes the importance of Dylan’s take on a folk ballad at least hundreds of years old, and how it evolved as it was passed down from generation to generation, country to country, in the old oral tradition through which such ballads survived. His analysis is even more fascinating when taken into the context of his experience hearing it in in various different languages. Why did Dylan change some elements, why did he maintain others? Where did he find the courage to upend traditional song structure? And how did such a ballad survive so many years to become relevant in 1962, and continue to be so in 2022? Portelli ponders these questions and posits some answers, and the reader is enriched with a new understanding of the Bob Dylan classic.
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Hard Rain: Bob Dylan, Oral Cultures, and the Meaning of History by Alessandro Portelli is a fascinating deep dive into not just Dylan's song and the ballads it is based on but about oral traditions more broadly.

I have to admit that while I had heard of Lord Randall I really had not considered it much beyond its influence on A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall. Portelli presents the history and an analysis of it that was every bit as interesting as what I came to the book for, namely, Dylan's song.

While somewhat academic in nature this book is also very accessible. Many references are made to poets and other figures the reader may not know but the context is always made clear so that lack of familiarity doesn't disrupt the flow of the book. Any that sound interesting to you you can then find out more about. This is one of those books that will, for many readers, lead to looking up other articles, works, and critiques, a springboard into peripheral topics while working through this one.

This also made me go back and look at another book I read in the past couple years, Grown-Up Anger by Daniel Wolff. Wolff's book is far less academic (though very well researched) and has a narrower time frame (Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and the Calumet Massacre of 1913) but looks at a much larger portion of Dylan's work with a similar interest on the folk and oral traditions. Portelli's work gave me a much better foundation from which to then build a better understanding of Wolff's book. It may well do the same for you with any other folk or oral tradition books you've read in the past. In other words, this will offer insights that will go far beyond just Dylan and Lord Randall.

I would recommend this to readers with an interest in oral traditions, how memory and history influence the ways in which music (and ideas) are passed on, and of course Dylan fans. I think any reader with an interest in any of these areas will find themselves gaining more interest in the others.

Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.
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