Page last updated at 11:21 GMT, Saturday, 5 December 2009

Bob Dylan song adopted by Copenhagen climate summit

By Barbara Plett
BBC UN correspondent, New York

Bob Dylan performing in California, June 2009
Bob Dylan - now 68 - first performed the song in 1962

Bob Dylan has star billing at the climate change summit in Copenhagen… or at least, his music does.

The United Nations has adopted one of his songs, A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall, as its unofficial anthem for the talks.

This is a song best known for channelling the fears of a generation living under the threat of nuclear war.

Dylan performed it for the first time in 1962 at the height of the Cold War, shortly before a plan by Moscow to station atomic missiles in Cuba set off a crisis between the United States and the Soviet Union.

But Hard Rain has weathered well, and is now being invoked to highlight this generation's fear of environmental calamity.

That is testimony to the enduring and universal power of its lyrics, says David Fricke, a senior editor at the Rolling Stone music magazine in New York.

"Let me just quote some lines and see if any sound familiar," he says.

"'I've stepped in the middle of seven sad forests; I've been out in front of a dozen dead oceans; I heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world.'

"What about this don't we recognise? All of those images and the pictures those words conjure, they're as familiar as a cable news report four minutes ago!"

The song has inspired numerous covers by various musicians. It also inspired a UN environmental photographer, Mark Edwards.

His Hard Rain odyssey began in 1969, when he was rescued by Tuareg nomads after getting lost in the Sahara Desert.

"My rescuer rubbed two sticks together," recalls Mr Edwards.

"He made a fire and we had a nice cup of tea. Then he turned his battered old cassette player on, and Bob Dylan sang 'A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall.'

"I was fascinated by the lyrics, and I decided to illustrate each line of the song. In the years that followed I added pictures as I saw them."


The UN is exhibiting his work at the climate change conference, accompanied by the release of a rare live recording of Bob Dylan performing the song, which the UN is using as an unofficial soundtrack to the summit.

"What the exhibition does, and what Dylan's lyrics allow us to do, is to illustrate all of our global problems," explains Mr Edwards.

The idea that the UN is now taking a Bob Dylan tune and putting it up to be the anthem for Copenhagen seems to me kind of silly
Max Schulz
Manhattan Institute

"Poverty, population expansion, conventional pollution. If we want to solve climate change, if we really want to deal with this huge issue, we've got to see the whole of it, we've got to respond to this problem in totality."

Others are less enthusiastic, including Max Schulz, an energy expert at the Manhattan Institute think tank.

He is sceptical about doomsday climate change predictions, and he is also a Bob Dylan fan who thinks the UN is exploiting a great song for its own narrow purposes.

"The idea that the UN is now taking a Bob Dylan tune and putting it up to be the anthem for Copenhagen seems to me kind of silly," he says.

"And trying to play on the environmental alarmism of the song seems doubly silly.

"It is not clear from anything that we know about the song that it has anything to do with environmental harm or destruction: it's a bizarre song, it's an inscrutable one."

But regardless of what Bob Dylan did or did not mean, A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall clearly remains an indictment, says David Fricke, and a stark warning to today's leaders.

"It really shows that if we don't address things, the hard rain is not only 'gonna' fall," he says, "but it's been falling already, and we've haven't been paying attention."

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