Patti Smith’s offering of Bob Dylan’s “It’s A Hard Rain Gonna’ Fall” at the Nobel Prize award ceremony on 10 December 2016 is a prophetic lament for a broken world.

It was such a strange setting for this raw aching song. The audience was populated with the power elites of the world. They embody privilege, prestige, and elegant civility. As the camera swept across the crowd, it felt hard to imagine that the deep pain and brokenness of Dylan’s song could really penetrate this gathering. But Smith’s rendition seems likely to break through even the most poised and controlled veneer.

Patti stumbles early in the song, then falters briefly once again. She appears so vulnerable, apologizes with authenticity and gentleness. But she recovers… boy does she recover. She goes on to reinhabit the strength of Dylan’s lyrics and release the power of her extraordinary voice. She ends so strong.

I love the comment that accompanied this video as it appeared on my Facebook feed:

Watched this with my beautiful blue-eyed son – tears streaming down my face – a flow of feeling I so need to be making space for – I told Miles, this is why art matters. We need meaning, we need space to be moved to tears, to feel deeply the dark, strangeness and suffering of our world, as well as its tender beauty. We need the guides that take us to those places, who ground us in our bodies, hearts and minds. 

Indeed, this is “why art matters”.

Patti Smith’s performance of this deeply disturbing and troubling song seems strangely timely at this moment in our collective history as a world community and in this Advent season of the year.

There is so much uncertainty, so much brokenness, pain, tragedy, and fear that stalk the world unsettling our days and disturbing our nights.

In Advent we prepare to remember a difficult and painful journey taken by a powerless, vulnerable and impoverished young couple due to the dictate of a tyrant. Their journey takes them, not to a place of glittering style and glamour, but to a place where they are forced to confront their marginalization and their poverty. It is the journey Dylan described with such power when he wrote:

I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans
I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.

But “a hard rain” is not the final word. Even in the midst of Dylan’s lament,

I saw a newborn baby.

The journey Mary and Joseph took, leads not only to pain. Their journey leads also to beauty.

We prepare in this Advent season to celebrate the birth of hope, peace, joy, and love in the midst of uncertainty and suffering. We intend to surrender to the power of vulnerability and to embrace the tenderness of an infant.

We all stumble. And in our shared stumbling lies a strength greater than all the glitter and glamour of a Nobel Prize ceremony.

Patti Smith’s extraordinary rendition of Dylan’s song stands as an icon of this season. Even as it laments the tragic brokenness of the human community, it embodies the beauty and strength manifest in our human weakness.

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