Patti Smith has written about her performance of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain A-Gonna Fall” at the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm on 10 December.

Her words are deeply touching and should be read in their entirety here:

patti-smithIt turns out, Smith’s faltering performance was not due to forgetfulness, not even really due to the nervousness of which she spoke when she stumbled.

Smith says,

I hadn’t forgotten the words that were now a part of me. I was simply unable to draw them out.

What really happened was,

I was struck with a plethora of emotions, avalanching with such intensity that I was unable to negotiate them.

This is the journey of life. We must all negotiate the “plethora of emotions, avalanching with such intensity” as we seek to find our way

down six crooked highways
…in the middle of seven sad forests
… in front of a dozen dead oceans.

Patti Smith points out,

It was not lost on me that the narrative of the song begins with the words “I stumbled alongside of twelve misty mountains,” and ends with the line “And I’ll know my song well before I start singing.” As I took my seat, I felt the humiliating sting of failure, but also the strange realization that I had somehow entered and truly lived the world of the lyrics.

Even, when we have reached the heights of fame that place us on stage before kings and queens, the challenge remains the same. It is the question Dylan posed in his stirring lyrics:

And what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
And what’ll you do now my darling young one?

What will I do? What will I do when I stumble? How will I respond when I falter?

The only thing to do is what Dylan suggests:

I’m a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest

In the face of “the humiliating sting of failure”, I get up and I carry on. I go “back out” and “walk to the depths of the deepest black forest.”

Mercifully, most of us do not stumble in quite as public a forum as Patti Smith. But, even for those of us whose faltering is more private, the challenge remains the same. Will I pick myself up and carry on?

Patti ends her article at the New Yorker speaking about a personal wound she continues to carry in her life.

When my husband, Fred, died, my father told me that time does not heal all wounds but gives us the tools to endure them. I have found this to be true in the greatest and smallest of matters. Looking to the future, I am certain that the hard rain will not cease falling, and that we will all need to be vigilant. The year is coming to an end; on December 30th, I will perform “Horses” with my band, and my son and daughter, in the city where I was born. And all the things I have seen and experienced and remember will be within me, and the remorse I had felt so heavily will joyfully meld with all other moments. Seventy years of moments, seventy years of being human.

At Christmas we affirm that all life is held in the hands of mercy.

There is room for all my failures and betrayals. The pain of “the hard rain” is taken up in the beauty of that “darling young one ” born in obscurity in the midst of suffering and poverty who would announce to the world,

it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:23),

but also affirmed that,

Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.(Luke 6:20)

The capacity to perceive the beauty and truth of life lies not with those who never stumble. It resides at the very place where we falter. The beauty hides in the midst of the suffering and humiliation. It is uncovered when we acknowledge the pain and loneliness that are an inevitable part of life in this flawed reality. The gift resides precisely in that place I most often seek to avoid. The beauty is released when I am willing to know that I am poor.

The Nativity announces to the world that truth and beauty are born in darkness and poverty.


Having read Patti’s description of what actually happened in Stockholm on 10 December 2016, watch again her performance. Her words in the New Yorker, ring with powerful authenticity and honesty.

nb: I don’t know if was Dylan’s intention, and it may be a stretch, but it is hard for me not to hear in his lyrics at least an allusion to the crucifixion (the ultimate “failure” that became the greatest victory), when he wrote:

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’