In Bob Dylan’s absence, fellow poet of similar stature Patti Smith gave a rousing performance of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” for the Nobel Ceremony where he was awarded the prize for literature. During the performance, she tripped up and had to restart her performance after blanking on one bleak lyric: “I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’.” “I apologize, I’m sorry, I’m so nervous,” she said after the slip-up.
In a brief New Yorker piece, Smith elaborated on why she got nervous while performing the Dylan standard. Smith had practiced for the ceremony extensively, but even she—a performer since the early ’70s—can lose her cool.
The opening chords of the song were introduced, and I heard myself singing. The first verse was passable, a bit shaky, but I was certain I would settle. But instead I was struck with a plethora of emotions, avalanching with such intensity that I was unable to negotiate them. From the corner of my eye, I could see the the huge boom stand of the television camera, and all the dignitaries upon the stage and the people beyond. Unaccustomed to such an overwhelming case of nerves, I was unable to continue. I hadn’t forgotten the words that were now a part of me. I was simply unable to draw them out.
This strange phenomenon did not diminish or pass but stayed cruelly with me. I was obliged to stop and ask pardon and then attempt again while in this state and sang with all my being, yet still stumbling. 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.
Dylan presciently described the difficulty of performing for the Nobel committee’s small audience in an absentee speech he prepared. “As a performer I’ve played for 50,000 people and I’ve played for 50 people and I can tell you that it is harder to play for 50 people,” Dylan said. “50,000 people have a singular persona, not so with 50. Each person has an individual, separate identity, a world unto themselves.”
Watch Smith’s performance once more below.