Patti Smith Made Us Cry. But Why?

Patti Smith Made Us Cry. But Why?

In our superfast turnaround-information world, much has already been written about Patti Smith's stunning rendition of Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" at Saturday's Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm. Some writers saw her performance as "transcendent"; others considered it "botched" because at one point Smith had to stop singing and begin again, admitting to an audience of royalty of all sorts that she was "very nervous." Some clearly felt that her admitted vulnerability really only added to her great success. The applause, both when she confessed her nervousness and when she ended her performance, was enormous.

Not only did Smith sing Dylan gloriously--with his own phrasing, imperfections, and raspy, affected voice--she sang it now, at a time when it seems everyone understands that the song is a perfect choice for the world we are living in. Sounding prophetic, folkloric, and completely American, Smith stood as Dylan's surrogate at this most auspicious of all ceremonies.

Patti Smith's performance moved many to tears. Elegantly dressed women in the audience cried; reporters writing about the event admitted they had cried; and those of my generation, the 1960s, watching it on YouTube surely cried, too. But why?

Many forces converged to move us to tears. The first simply was Patti Smith herself--looking so elegant and androgynous and plain with her long silver hair, her white shirt, her voice soft when she asked for forgiveness, whether for forgetting the words or losing track of the words or simply succumbing to emotion: "I am sorry, I'm so nervous." That vulnerability surely made me cry.

And the song, well, that song appeared in1962 in the middle of many struggles in this country, during the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War. And for those of us who lived through that time, the song resonated then with its enigmatic imagery as it resonates now, attesting to the timelessness of a great poem and a great American ballad.

But perhaps most significant, we cried because "A Hard Rain" is already falling. A reign of terror of a kind, a reign of undoing of all we've believed in, built, struggled for, an undoing of all those small and large successes over several decades in moving the country forward to fulfill its mission of democracy. We cried because we are living in a moment when that undoing of progress is undoing us. Every day the incoming administration proposes another unbelievably inappropriate choice to fill critical positions in government, people who--judged by most standards for progressive thinking, clear-headedness, and respect for other humans and the planet--have no business being considered at all. Every day we see this new concept of "post-fact truth" invading what once appeared to be a rational society committed to scientific truth, compassion, inclusiveness, and decency.

So there she was, Patti Smith, a big talent herself, who had also lived through the '60s, accepting the Nobel Prize, the highest acknowledgment of creativity awarded in this world, for another great artist, whose quirkiness kept him away. And she did it magnificently. For a moment, we could be proud of our country, proud of the brilliance of the artists who have emerged from our struggles, proud of the cultural contributions they have made to the world. Of course we cried. We were proud but we were also mourning. And perhaps the ceremonious event reminded us that we too could cry and be overcome with nervousness and emotion, because our hearts have been broken and not for the first time.

A hard rain is already falling. It is pelting us daily, and the real rain/reign has not even yet begun. But the resistance in our hearts already has. So maybe, too, we were crying to prepare ourselves for the battle ahead.