Measure for Measure: Rain Songs

13th January 1973: British blues-rock singer and guitarist, Eric Clapton, in concert at the Rainbow Rooms. (Photo by Express/Express/Getty Images)

“It Never Rains in Southern California” may have been true in 1973 when Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood wrote these words, but March came in like a lion in 2020, unleashing a record-busting deluge on wildfire-scorched mountainsides. Flash floods and mudslides ensued, and just when I was beginning to wonder “Who’ll Stop The Rain?” COVID-19 appeared, transforming “rain” into a gloomy metaphor.

Maybe the virus will have run its course by the time this column appears, but in all likelihood, we’ll all be feeling the need for a rain song, a venerable genre. Just visit a lyric website and search “in the rain,” and you will get over a thousand results. Few are of recent vintage, however, which suggests that opportunity knocks.

Begin by steeping your imagination in rain songs. Many good titles had to be cut from the list below, but those that remain illustrate the variety within the genre. Rain is a sensual experience, so tune in on the bridge between sensation and emotion while you listen.

Warmup: Free associate on “rain.” What images come to mind? What scenes? Sounds? Scents? Memories contain the seeds of new songs, so grab your legal pad and start scribbling.

Sad and Blue
A conceit of the information age is that there’s an app for every problem. But if love dies, there is no app. Rain is the ideal metaphor because the weather, like love, is beyond our control.

1. “Just Walkin’ In The Rain,” The Prisonaires (1953). Sung by real-life convicts with heartfelt vocals. Why are songs about lost love so seductive? They give us a dilute dose of sadness, packaged in poetry, harmony and melody. These manageable doses of pain strengthen our immune system and purge our emotions. A good rain song won’t solve any problems, but it sure can cleanse our emotional gutters. Many find the experience addictive, but only if they’re human beings.

2. “Blue Eyes Cryin’ In The Rain,” Willie Nelson (1975). Vivid imagery distinguishes this song. It may seem contradictory that many sad songs are in major keys, but the warmth of major mode allows one to view the rain calmly, safe and secure in the embrace of the song.

3. “As Tears Go By,” Marianne Faithful (1965). Only one line mentions rain (0:58), but rain and tears are virtually equivalent. The mood here is melancholy: “It is the evening of the day” suggests it’s too late for hope. The oboes weep, but the major mode somehow reassures.

4. “Rhythm Of The Rain,” The Cascades (1962). Any time you find rain sounds in the melody, imitate! Here, the melody falls stair-step style through the pentatonic scale: “La-Sol-Sol-Mi,-Mi-Re-Re-Do,” etc. The key words here are “falls” and “pentatonic.” Experiment.

Can’t Help Fallin’ in Love
Sometimes you just feel like “Singin’ In The Rain,” if not grabbin’ a lamppost.

1. “Rain On The Roof,” Lovin’ Spoonful (1966). Too many suggestions of rain in the music to name, but note the falling major scale. Sensual imagery abounds, such as, “You and me underneath the roof of tin,” “Sitting in the hay” and “Drying while it soaks the flowers.” 

2. “Walking In The Rain,” The Ronettes (1964). Phil Spector’s “wall of rain.”

3. “Bus Stop,” The Hollies (1966). Cozy scene where harmonies shift between major and minor modes like rainy-day chills.

4. “Let It Rain,” Eric Clapton (1972). Clapton’s guitar is like lightning.

Prophecy and Portent
Some songwriters hear rain on the roof and think Noah’s flood.

1. “Who’ll Stop The Rain,” Creedence Clearwater Revival (1970). The guitar riff evokes rain.

2. “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” Bob Dylan (1963).

3. “Riders On The Storm,” The Doors (1970). Organ solo evokes rain with falling note patterns.

Sun and Rain
Rain and sun are opposites, so any mention of sunshine in a rain song should make your ears prick up. Read between the lines.

1. “Early Morning Rain,” Gordon Lightfoot (1966). One poignant reference — “and the sun always shines” — conveys hopeless longing.

2. “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head,” B. J. Thomas (1969). “Talkin’ to the sun” (0:20) summons hope.

3. “Rain,” The Beatles (1966). Verse 1: “If the rain comes …” Verse 2: “If the sun shines …” Conflict keeps us on the run, but “It’s just a state of mind,” sings John. Eastern scales in the guitar break and backward vocals in the outro suggest a psychedelic solution. The descending perfect 5th leap on “If the ra-a-a-in comes” suggests a downpour. The droning chant on “Ra-a-a-a-in” suggests sheets of rain.

4. “Have You Ever Seen The Rain?” Creedence Clearwater Revival. By 1971, American youth was heartily sick of endless war. “Good men through the ages, trying to find the sun” argues futility.

Rainy Day Reflections
May is here and the rain is gone, as Jimmy Cliff might say. Now I’m “Fixing a Hole” where the rain got in. Literally. But in a world of woe, rain songs can be a refuge. As a songwriter, you can build a rainproof shelter with metrically perfect walls of words and music. In these times, that’s triple the usual motivation to put pen to paper.

So, be a rainmaker.

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