Patti Smith accepted the Nobel Prize for Bob Dylan this morning in Stockholm, singing “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” at the awards ceremony, in a simple, spare arrangement that presented Dylan’s words in their naked truth. The power of the message is as true now as it was when it was written, perhaps more so.
Writing for The New Yorker Amanda Petrusich said:
She looked so striking: elegant and calm in a navy blazer and a white collared shirt, her long, silver hair hanging in loose waves, hugging her cheekbones. I started crying almost immediately. She forgot the words to the second verse—or at least became too overwhelmed to voice them—and asked to begin the section again. I cried more. “I’m sorry, I’m so nervous,” Smith admitted. The orchestra obliged. The entire performance felt like a fierce and instantaneous corrective to “times like these”—a reiteration of the deep, overwhelming, and practical utility of art to combat pain. In that moment, the mission of the Nobel transcended any of its individual recipients. How plainly glorious to celebrate this work.
Watch her performance here, and keep your handkerchief at hand.
Here’s the second verse:
Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall
Dylan’s exhortation at the end should serve as an anthem for us all in these times:
And what'll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
And what'll you do now, my darling young one?
I'm a-goin' back out 'fore the rain starts a-fallin'
I'll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
And the executioner's face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I'll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I'll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin'
But I'll know my song well before I start singin'
And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard
It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.
Before Smith took the stage, Horace Engdahl, a literary historian and critic, dismissed any controversy over Dylan’s win, saying the decision “seemed daring only beforehand, and already seems obvious.” He spoke of Dylan’s “sweet nothings and cruel jokes,” and his capacity for fusing “the languages of the streets and the Bible.” In the past, he reminded us, all poetry was song.
Has Dylan conferred great benefit to mankind? Listening to Smith sing his song—and watching as audience members, dressed in their finest, wiped their eyes, blindly reached for each other, seemed unable to exhale—the answer felt obvious. The answer was on their faces.
When words fail, when we are lost and don’t know where to turn, art speaks for us.