Rhyming With Bob
About The Use Of Rhymes In Bob Dylan’s Songs
Nearly all popular songs – and here I include Country, Folk and Blues - are written in rhymes. If there is no rhyming then there is a good chance that some kind of parallelism is used to give the song its structure. Bob Dylan's lyrics are no exception. Rhyming is an integral part, maybe even the "sine qua non" (Feinstein, p. 272) of songwriting. A song is not at least defined by the way rhyming is used, it works both on the sonic and the semantic level, but different from written poetry.
How rhyming is used depends on the singing and performance style, the cultural background of the writers and the audience, the song genre, the competence of the songwriter and his practical and theoretical knowledge about the effects of rhyming. Important is the appropriate use of rhyming in the context of a song, but even that is hard to define because listeners can react differently because of different knowledge and values. Some people will regard rhymes like mind/time or smile/wild as amateurish while others will see no problem. And of course the well known fact that not all songwriters are created equal is valid in this context, too. What might sound awkward and wrong in a song by a beginner can have a different effect when used by great writer: the listener will think it was done on purpose because the songwriter is supposed to know what he is doing.
Rhyming has its effects on a "subliminal level" (Webb, p. 58). A false rhyme might offend a listener subconsciously "even if he or she doesn't know the difference between a false and proper rhyme" (dto). Oscar Hammerstein claimed that "a rhyme should be unassertive, never standing out too noticeably [it] should appear only where it is absolutely demanded to keep the pattern of the music" (Hammerstein, p. 21). On the other hand rhyming can also be an intellectual game. Often it is a joy to hear an outrageous or surprising rhyme or an intelligent solution to a rhyming problem. A rhyme "follows the natural contours of the melody [...] creates a musical effect with words that have similar sounds [...] jogs our memory and helps us remember the song [...] helps the listener guess and understand" the message (Citron, p. 131). To think rhyming in Bob Dylan songs isn't that important is somehow absurd. But as far as I can see it has been rarely discussed. To my knowledge the only exceptions are Betsy Bowden, Christopher Ricks and Michael Gray.
To understand rhyming in Bob Dylan songs it is necessary to place him in a historical context and compare his works and his style with the songs of the theater writers from the 20s to the 50s, but not to ask who is "better" but to get a perspective on the use of rhyming in songs. This perspective is justified because both Dylan – and his fellow singer/songwriters – and the theater and movie songwriters of the generation before intended to write songs both intelligent and popular for a more or less sophisticated and well-educated audience, different from the everyday hit parade fare.
Those theater writers – who had created so many songs of lasting value – were very disappointed by the development of the popular song since the 50s when "the amateurs took over" (Alec Wilder). A lyricist like "Yip" Harburg – who had a vision of what a popular song could achieve, who always had worked on a very high level and who had written the lyrics to some of the most successful songs of his era – never was able to understand Dylan or The Beatles. He only saw a massive and painful decline in the art and craft of songwriting and a growing illiteracy.
For Johnny Mercer not only the recourse to musical models from Folk and Country was a reactionary step backwards. He wasn't that fond of those who tried to "philosophize to a hillbilly tune with chords from 'way 'way ago" (Lees, Mercer, p. 79). Not at least he was troubled by what he regarded as a laissez-faire approach to rhyming: "Using imperfect rhymes is a cop-out" (Lees, Mercer, p. 295). This might sound like snobbishness. But Mercer was well aware of all the subtleties of rhyming in songs and their effects on the listener. Behind this stern verdict there was also the not unreasonable idea that a songwriter first has to know what an exact rhyme is: "True ease in writing comes from art, not chance. As those who move easiest who have learn'd to dance" (Alexander Pope).
The importance of and the knowledge about exact and sophisticated rhyming has definitely diminished since the 50s. "The false rhyme is with us so much on a daily basis that we simply don't hear it anymore" (Webb, p. 58) or don't care about it. A writer as careful as Randy Newman once admitted somehow grudgingly that he was taking "liberties" with rhyming that "traditional songwriters would not" (Zollo, p. 279). Even Dylan himself – and in his songs there are surely enough doubtful rhymes that would not only make Johnny Mercer cringe but also T. S. Eliot – grumbled in 1991 about the lack of interest in perfect rhymes: "But then again, people have taken rhyming now, it doesn't have to be exact anymore. Nobody's going to care if you rhyme 'represent' with 'ferment', you know. Nobody's gonna care" (Zollo, p. 81).
Here he doesn't sound that different from the purists of the older generation. This stylistic change – in some quarters regarded as growing illiteracy - is reflected in an article about rhyming in Dylan's songs by Patrick Crotty who claims that the "mere occurrence of a loosely rhyming word is sufficient for the purposes of most songs" (Crotty, p. 308). This might be true today, but it's an ahistorical view. W. S. Gilbert, Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart and Johnny Mercer would have fiercely disagreed and today not only Dave Frishberg or Tom Lehrer would oppose.
For the lyricists of musical theater sophisticated and exact rhyming was an indispensable part of the craft and art of songwriting. It was instrumental both for the song's inner consistence and for its singability at a time when the singing style on records and radio as well as on the theater stage was characterized by very precise enunciation and the songs were to follow the natural rhythm of speech. These writers had grown up in a completely different cultural tradition when writing verses and rhyming was still an everyday-art. That was the era of the so called "light" verse, the verse de societé (see Furia, Poets, p. 6/7 ).
"We were well-versed in all French forms", "Yip" Harburg once recalled, "[...] we were highly disciplined. We were never permitted to use an oricular (sic!) rhyme or a tonal rhyme like home and tone [...] If you want to write songs and you don't know A. E. Houseman, if you don't know Dorothy Parker, Frank Adams, [Bert L.] Taylor, Gilbert [W.S. Gilbert of Gilbert & Sullivan] you cannot begin to be a good lyric writer" (Harburg/Meyerson, p. 18). W. S. Gilbert was extremely influential and served as a role model. Even Irving Berlin who had started out as a completely unschooled poor immigrant quickly assimilated these traditions. In the 20s he was a charted member of the Algonquin Round Table, the hippest urban and urbane intellectual circle of that time, including Dorothy Parker, George Kaufman and Harpo Marx.
The younger songwriters like Harburg and Ira Gershwin "loved popular song, and they knew that song lyrics could be better" (Harburg/Meyerson, p. 20). Besides Irving Berlin's songs Lorenz Hart's lyrics to Richard Rodgers' music – the surprising commercial success of the Garrick Gaeities with songs like "Manhattan" was groundbreaking – served as an important inspiration and – to paraphrase something that was once said about Dylan – freed the mind of Harburg and his friends: "The impact of [Rodgers & Hart's] songs was an explosion that shook the rhymes out of my psyche and changed my life [...]" (Harburg/Meyerson, p. 30). Rhyming wasn't defined in a purely formalist way or as art for arts sake - although Hart occasionally fell into that trap -, it was used to weave the lyrics with the music - melody, harmony and rhythm - to create meaning and consistency and to assure singability. It was much more than writing down simple end rhymes. Techniques included complex inner, mosaic and vowel rhymes and as well as an exact knowledge where to place which vowels and consonances.
PhilipFuria noted that Irving Berlin was able to "manipulate the subtlest relations between words and music":
"Much of the lyrical artfulness of Berlin's [ballads] stems from his subtle fragmentation and juxtaposition of words against music [...] By breaking up the verbal phrases [...] Berlin's 'ragging' produces fragments that rhyme in unusual ways [...] The repetitive rhymes capture the obsessive sensibility of such a prisoner of love, and Berlin's insistent folding of sound fragment around sound fragment tightens the psychological chains [Berlin's ballads] imply a solitary listener, at the phonograph or radio,and his technique of folding the tiniest rhyming fragments over and over one another creates a lyrical 'space' - self-enclosed, repetitive, faceted - that is designed for the self-absorbed plaintative singer who inhabits it " (Furia, Poets, pp. 55f, 58).
"Ragging" the words against the music was developed by Berlin by transferring the syncopation of ragtime melodies to lyric writing. "I established the syncopated ballad and I have shown that the metre (sic) can be 'chopped up' to fit the words" (quoted in Furia, Berlin, p. 101). This had parallels in contemporary poetry, especially Marianne Moore. What T. S. Eliot wrote about Ms Moore in 1935 - "[...] some of those who do use [rhyme], have used it here and there to make a pattern directly in contrast with the sense and rhythm pattern, to give a greater intricacy [...] This rhyme [...] forms a pattern against the metric and sense pattern of the poem [...]" (quoted from Weber, p. 158) - could have easily been said about Berlin and some of his younger fellow songwriters, especially Lorenz Hart and Cole Porter.
Porter's "Anything Goes" (1934) offers more examples of "ragging" the words against the music - this time as an up tempo song -, for example in this lines where he literally rags the Vanderbilts and Whitneys to little pieces:
When folks who still can ride in jitneys
Find out Vanderbilts and Whitneys
Lack baby clo'es
Another important point was the sensible handling of the intricacies of language. By explicitly using the more colloquial clo'es instead of clothes – barely audible in performance and requiring exact singing and close listening – Porter illustrates how the formerly wealthy are now confronted with the harsh realities of life and paints a subtle and ironic image of downward mobility in depression-era America. It should be noted that this was also the age of the radio when "the high oral tradition of American pop culture was only enhanced" (Grant, p. 85). People had to listen closely and had a deeper understanding for the subtleties of language. "Is it entirely a coincidence that the best years of Broadway songwriting mostly coincide with the golden age of radio?" (dto.)
"I Get A Kick Out Of You" (1934) offers another example for the finely crafted use of language and rhyme:
Some get a kick from cocaine.
I'm sure that if I took even one sniff
That would bore me terrific'ly too
Yet I get a kick out of you.
By contracting terrifically to terrific'ly – also barely audible but stressed in performance by inserting a little pause, as in Ethel Merman's recording – Porter makes it fit into the meter and creates a clean triple assonance -rif/ic'/ly that rhymes and corresponds with the keywords kick and sniff and the other "i"-s in these lines. But the use of the colloquial contraction as well as the slangy kick is also juxtaposed with elegant diction as "mere alcohol" in the first verse and plays a part in creating a sense of "imbalance" (Furia, Poets, p. 169/170) that paints an image of obsession behind a "facade of nonchalant sophistication" (dto). This effect was at least partly lost when cocaine later was censored out of the song. Also the last line with its series of vowel rhymes is not only a trick, but actually makes sense in the context of the song:
"Rather than top his list with a third, more potent drug than alcohol and cocaine, he takes the 'high' they give in literal terms and underscores the ascent with a series of rhymes on the progressively higher notes of a melody" (Furia, Poets, p. 171/2).
Porter's "Night And Day" (1932) demonstrates complex and subtle rhyming including inner rhymes and assonances that keep the song together and create structure and unity. Even the consonants are corresponding with each other, as with longing/follows, roaring/traffic's or with the alliteration in the penultimate line of the refrain: let/life/love. Then there is a masterful use of "echoing rhymes" (Furia) and a berlinesque ability of "bringing out the musical intensity with tiny, faceted repetitions of sound - one/under/sun/hungry, moon/room/boom/through/you" (Furia, Poets, p. 164), - or: longing/for/follows/go/roaring. The prologue is built on the "i"-sound (beat/tick/drip) intensifying with a chain of 7 "i"-s in a row in the last line while the melody creates tension by remaining on the dominant note:
[...] a voice within me keeps repeating you, you, you...
Musicologist Allen Forte notes about another Porter classic, "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye": "[...] the process of rhyming, near rhyming, inner rhyming and remote rhyming forge sonic connections as well as semantic associations at a deeper level of meaning [and creates] luminous threads that run through the lyrics" (p. 159).
Rhymes have a different character and sound depending on the vowels and consonants used. In Johnny Mercer's "I Thought About You" for example the "abrupt consonant k [evokes] the click of the train's wheels" (Lees, Singers, p. 75):
"The word clack is never even used; yet you hear the clacking in your mind. It is implied by the sound and the rhyme" (dto). Interestingly Bob Dylan achieved a similar effect in "Simple Twist Of Fate", evoking aimless, monotonous walking by rhyming on the "k" -sound:
He hears the ticking of the clocks
And walks along with a parrot that talks,
Hunts her down by the waterfront docks
where the sailors all come in
Since the 40s and 50s the light verse tradition was beginning to dry out. Also the comical list songs based on intelligent and surprising rhyming in the tradition of Gilbert & Sullivan lost at least some of its popularity. Later purveyors of this genre like Tom Lehrer or Dave Frishberg weren't exactly household names in post-war America. Free verse was preferred in written poetry and there was of course the usual process of language change. Television was replacing radio - which itself lost much of its quality - as the center of popular culture and we know of course that this had serious consequences for the people's literacy. A part of the younger generation preferred Rock'n Roll, Country, Blues and Folk, genres less rhyme-based than the theater song. These genre's singing styles were assimilated in mainstream music and clear enunciation became less important. The electrification of the music could cover a multitude of rhyming sins. Also - especially with the singer/songwriters since the 60s - personal authenticity of songs became more important. Rhyming was regarded in some quarters as a technical constraint limiting the possibilities of self-expression (see Ricks, p. 31).
But in fact the search for rhymes has always served as an inspiration in lyric-writing. I wonder how many of Dylan's great lines were inspired by the necessities of rhyming. On the other hand a critical background was missing. "Yip" Harburg once recalled that "our tribe of songsmith always wrote for our peers [...] you wouldn't dare write a bad rhyme or a clichéd phrase" (Harburg/Meyerson, p. 75/76). The critics and audiences of the new era were more interested in meaning and message than in the subtleties of rhyming techniques and too often – to paraphrase songwriter Jimmy Webb – an assonance was mistaken "for a good deed" (Webb, p. 57).
In the 50s and early 60s there were only few possibilities available to find out about sophisticated rhyming in the context of songs. Besides Broadway – where Sondheim was just starting out – and comedy – be it Danny Kaye or maybe even Tom Lehrer – listening closely to records by Sinatra or Judy Garland singing the classic songs from the 20s to the 50s was the easiest way of learning how to rhyme in songs. This was an experience that most hard-boiled Bob-crits missed but surely not Bob Dylan himself.
Dylan, although "raised on free verse", was conservative enough to stay with rhyming. He obviously never subscribed to Shelley's "rhyme is a shelter for mediocrity" . Christopher Ricks once called Bob Dylan "one of the great rhymesters of all time" (Ricks, p. 19). I'm generally very skeptical about this kind of value judgments. The problem with Ricks' book - that includes a lot of interesting observations about Dylan's rhyming - is that he never discusses him in the context of songwriting history. Dylan obviously is a little more critical of his work himself. "I'm not a meticulous lyricist" he told Edna Gundersen in 1997 with his usual understatement. But he was well aware of the differences between his way of songwriting and the approach of the theater lyricists.
Often enough Dylan had to be careful and meticulous. Especially his more complex songs couldn't have been written with simplistic rhyming á la Guthrie. Judging from his lyrics with more convoluted rhyming patterns like "Jokerman" or "No Time To Think" he seems to have studied Hart et al. Reading poetry isn't enough. But on the other side he didn't need to be a "meticulous lyricist" all the time. Electrified Rock isn't exactly the best background music for complex rhyming and many of the subtleties of theater rhyming couldn't be transferred .
But it seems to me that his use of rhyming depended – especially in later years – on the genre he used. His Pop-song pastiches á la "I`ll Be Your Baby Tonight" or "Hazel" show a more "careful" use of rhymes than for example his Blues-based songs. Also some of his songwriting techniques are different from those of the lyricists. Dylan's songs work very often on a more visual level and are much less built on "verbal shocks" created by surprising rhymes, as is the case with theater songs in general and especially with the comical list songs by Gilbert, Porter or later Tom Lehrer.
Generally Dylan tends to use rhyming as a predominantly structural device and much less to convey meaning. He usually tries to deconstruct language through his phrasing rather than by rhyming as Berlin or Porter did. I can see only few traces of "luminous threads" of assonances in his songs – Ricks and Betsy Bowden discuss some examples in their books -, his way of using vowels and consonants seems to be less sophisticated and more unsystematic. In "Visions Of Johanna" the first line owes at least some of its effectiveness to the four i – rhymes:
Singability generally wasn't that big a problem for him because he wrote first and foremost for himself and other singers tended to emulate his phrasing when performing his songs. But of course he was aware of these problems as known cases of song editing demonstrate. In "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" he changed the line:
The edited line flows more naturally and is better singable with the assonance stand/game. Another example can be found in "Desolation Row" where the line:
was replaced by:
In this case the vowel rhyme -feeding/feel again makes this line flow more smoothly, it simply sounds better while the "boiled guts of birds" don't fit that good into the sonic context, although it maybe would have been a better image.
But it should also be noted that Dylan's singing style offered him a wider range of rhyming possibilities. What would sound awkward and wrong when sung with clear enunciation or what looks wrong on the page works with his idiosyncratic phrasing and pronunciation, by swallowing syllables and stressing a word differently. In "Just Like A Woman" the doubtful rhymes are forced into line by vocalizing. The same technique is used in "Visions Of Johanna" and what is left of the rhyming irregularities visible on page creates a kind of dissonant sound that serves the song well. But on the other hand the possibilities of using differences in pronunciation to achieve certain effects - see the comments above about "Anything Goes" and "I Get A Kick Out Of You" - became somehow more limited.
But Dylan was of course not above using these rhyming games for a more comical purposes, as with Honolulu/Ashtabula in "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go". "Absolutely Sweet Marie" offers some more fine examples: jump it/trumpet; half sick/traffic; did promise/be honest; pockets/unlock it. One of my favorites is still sick in/chicken in “Tombstone Blues”. Gray (Encyclopedia, p. 183) names as a possible inspiration Fats Domino, who "taught white pop fans about idiosyncratic flexibility in lyrics - particularly rhymes - through odd emphasis and odd pronunciation". This is surely correct, but only half the truth.
The manipulation of words to fit the rhyme and to reach certain effects was not unknown to mainstream writers and singers, not to mention Gilbert & Sullivan and the long tradition of "nonsense" - verse. Ira Gershwin's lyrics offer many examples and Cole Porter - a "fearless rhymer" (Bob Dylan) - had a lot of fun with these kind of games with the American language, he could rhyme anything if he wanted to, especially - but not exclusively - in his comical songs. A singer like Danny Kaye was a master in performing outrageous rhyming feats in songs like Porter’s "Let's Talk About Love":
And why his drink capacity should get so much publacity,
Let's even have a huddle over Ha'vad Univassity
But in this regard it may also be asked if the necessities of forcing false or half rhymes in order have at least played a partial role in the development of Dylan's singing styles. And some of the irritations about his way of phrasing and vocalizing might derive from the fact that some of his techniques had been predominantly used in a comical context.
How important is rhyming for Dylan and his songs? I wouldn't say it's less important but at least it's less defining for his songs, he works on a different stylistic plane. His means are more limited, the context is different and more limiting, the songs as well as his singing and performance style do not always demand or allow sophisticated rhyming techniques. More subtle techniques both from written poetry and from theater song could not be transferred. But within these confinements Dylan was able to use rhyming in an interesting way and not seldom very effectively.
"Spanish Harlem Incident" with its deliberate overuse of alliterations and inner rhymes or "All I Really Want To Do" sound more like amusing parodies of excessive rhyming that haven't aged that well. "No Time To Think" was more like an experiment, interesting but not that successful. Here he tried to use Hart-like mosaic rhymes:
You're a soldier of mercy,
You're cold and you curse, "He
Stripped of all virtue
As you crawl through the dirt, you
This way of breaking the syntax to create interesting rhyming effects had been used by Hart occasionally in his more humorous songs, for example in "Mountain Greenery" (1926) with lines like "Beans could get no keaner re-/ception in a beanery" or "While you love your lover, let/Blue skies be your coverlet". In "No Time To Think" it sounds a little too "tricky" and too wooden. In fact it works best in up tempo songs where these rhymes do not disturb the natural flow of singing, as in Porter's "Anything Goes" (1934):
Dorothy Fields used the same kind of rhyming in her lyrics to "The Way You Look Tonight" (1936):
With your smile so warm
And your cheek so soft,
there is nothing for m-
e but to love you
In this case – although it's a ballad – Fred Astaire was able to sing it convincingly.
Additionally the word lists in the refrain of "No Time To Think" like "socialism, hypnotism, patriotism, materialism" or "loyality, unity, epitome, rigidity" make me somehow think of Danny Kaye singing Porter's hilarious "Let's Not Talk About Love" (1941):
And write a drunken poem on
Astrology, mythology, geology, philology
Elektro-physiology, spermology, phrenology? [...]
No, honey, ah suspect you-all
Of bein' intellectual
And so, instead of gushin' on,
Let's have a big discussion on
Timiditiy, stupidity, solidity, frigidity,
Avidity, turbidity, Manhattan and viscidity,
Fatalaty, morality, legality, finality
I always had some doubts about "No Time To Think", maybe because the rhyming devices used here are usually reserved for more humorous songs where they have a better effect. They simply don't fit into this overly serious song and create an undercurrent of unintended parody.
In "Hurricane" - with some help by Jacques Levy - this kind of mosaic rhyming sounds - at least for me - even more awkward. With the row of "i"-s and the triple rhyme stir/mur-/der these lines look like rhyming overkill more fitting to a comedy song.
We want to put his ass in stir
We want to pin this triple mur-
He ain't no Gentlemen Jim.
On the other hand "Like A Rolling Stone" owes much of its drive to the insistence of the rhyming patterns used. In the first part of the songs three different strands are intricately weaved: the static melody line staying on the tonic note, an ascending harmony pattern (I-IIm-IIIm-IV-V) and rapid inner rhymes. These are partly hardly visible on the page but clearly recognizable in performance. Sometimes there are only assonances but it works perfectly and clean rhyming would be out of place here:
You've gone to the finest school all right, Miss Lonely
But you know you only used to get juiced in it
The second part with four parallel lines has a different sound and character. In the last verse this part is built on a thick texture of "u"-s supporting the insistent "you" (see Ricks, p. 190).
You used to be so amused
At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used
Go to him now, he calls you, you can't refuse
When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose
And by placing the first line of a rhyme at the end of the verses over a dominant chord a tremendous tension is created, that is resolved by the refrain starting with the answering rhyming line with a tonic chord placed behind feel:
[...] scrounging for your next meal.
How does it feel
How does it feel
Also the four rhyming words at the end of the verses (meal/deal/steal/conceal) work like a frame strengthening this long song's inner consistency.
"I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" offers more examples for intelligent and effective rhyming, both on the sonic and semantic level:
Close your eyes, close the door,
You don't have to worry any more.
I'll be your baby tonight.
Shut the light, shut the shade,
You don't have to be afraid.
I'll be your baby tonight.
The first verse is built on the "o"-sound: close/close/door/don't/more, the second on the "a" - sound: shade/have/a-/fraid. This series of vowel rhymes give these lines structure and identity. The title line offers some amusing and effective rhyming games without sounding artificial and corny: I'll and -night work like a frame for this phrase and also refer back to eyes in verse 1 and light in verse 2; be alliterates and rhymes with baby; baby in turn is framed by your and to.
Well, that mockingbird's gonna sail away,
We're gonna forget it.
That big, fat moon is gonna shine like a spoon,
But we're gonna let it,
You won't regret it.
In the bridge the vowel rhyme sail/away is framed by the "o"-s in mockingbird/gonna and gonna/for-. Moon/spoon refers to the well known moon/june - rhyme and had at least at that time a quality of provocative irony. Dylan was said to have abolished those trite moon/june lyrics – a cliché in itself, because the last time moon and june had been rhymed in a less than ironic context must have been around the year 1910 – but here the author of "Desolation Row" and "Visions Of Johanna" nonchalantly croons an amusing variant of exactly this cliché rhyme. The rhyme forget it/let it looks like a quote from and allusion to "I'm In The Mood For Love" (Dorothy Fields, Jimmy McHugh, 1935), a song that is thematically closely related to "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" and may have served as an inspiration:
If there's a cloud above
If it should rain we'll let it
But for tonight, forget it
I'm in the mood for love
That song's rhyme under/wonder later was used in "Tonight I'll Be Stayin' Here With You". The third rhyming line "you won't forget it" may have been borrowed from the Gershwins' "Nice Work If You Can Get It" (1937):
This song's bridge would have worked well as an prologue to "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight":
Just imagine someone
Waiting at the cottage door
Where to hearts become one
Who could ask for anything more
And not at least these two songs share both a certain ironic playfulness and the Ragtime-influenced music.
The refrain of "Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again" owes much of its power and intensity to expertly crafted rhyming:
Oh Mama, can this really be the end
To be stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues again.
The first line of the refrain is defined by five consecutive "i"-s framed by can/end and placed against a static dominant minor chord. This technique of creating tension and intensity is not that different from what Porter did in the last line of the verse of "Night And Day". In the second part a less terse series of "i"-s corresponding with a descending bass line seems to lead directly into a release. But the tension isn't resolved completely because of the rhyme end/again – Ricks calls this a "metaphorical rhyme" (p. 31/2) - and also because the melody line doesn't end with a tonic-note but on the third. This is a "false" ending creating a kind of circular quality, offering no resting-point and leading directly into the next verse.
There are in fact songs where imperfect rhyming is obviously used deliberately as a stylistic device. "Every Grain Of Sand" should be mentioned (Gray, Encyclopedia, p. 219) or maybe "Simple Twist Of Fate", where there is only one less than perfect rhyme that actually makes sense in this otherwise immaculately rhymed song, although I have some doubts about how effective this could work in a live performance:
Some of the more imperfect rhymes in "Moonlight" like losin'/Susan, palm/from or crimson/limbs an' may be a reason to think that this song wasn't meant as serious as it might look at first sight. This is exactly a technique a theater writer would use. In some of his early songs - "Song To Woody", "Girl From The North Country" or "Boots Of Spanish Leather" - he seems to have refrained from attempting more perfect and regular rhyming to create a certain kind of "authentic" imperfectness - this has of course theatrical qualities - because Bob Dylan singing a song to Woody Guthrie shouldn't sound like Fred Astaire performing a Cole Porter song.
This deliberate "sloppiness" was an element of his "rhetoric of authenticity" that made him sound different from the songwriters of the older generation and nearer to the Folk-, Country- and Blues singers he was emulating at that time. But this also demonstrates a change in the definition of naturalness. The theater lyricists wanted the song to follow the "natural prosody of spoken English" (Jeness/Velsey, p. 9) with the help of perfect but unobtrusive rhyming. The early Dylan sometimes obviously tried to achieve naturalness and authenticity not at least through the lack of perfect rhymes.
But generally I don't get the impression that Dylan was experimenting too often with the sonic or semantic effects of less than "perfect" rhyming. Of course every doubtful rhyme can easily be defined as an assonance with a special purpose or a metaphorical rhyme but this seems to me a little too far-fetched and we will miss the moments when he is using this kind of rhymes - and rhyming in general - to great effects. But even the "rhetoric of authenticity" can't explain everything. He was definitely aware of the pleasures of the perfect rhyme. If there is none and if he wasn't able to force it into order through phrasing and vocalizing most likely he didn't find one or he didn't care or he didn't want to sacrifice a good idea for a better rhyme. Of course it's more a matter of taste if we judge this as a change of style and songwriting values or as a decline of standards. But rhyming has a major influence on how a song will and can be sung by a performer and understood by the listener. If a song doesn't sound like it should it might be a good idea to have a look at the rhymes.
I have to thank Craig Thomas, Frank, Kaspar, Derek and some more people from the former dylanpool forum for discussing rhyming in Bob Dylan's songs with me and turning my attention to problems I wasn't aware of. Also thanks to Georgia Sam (dto) for turning my attention to the editing of lines in "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" and "Desolation Row". I owe the term "rhetoric of authenticity" to Phil Ford’s Blog Dial "M" For Musicology
All song lyrics are quoted for educational purposes only and they are © their respective owners!
- Betsy Bowden, Performed Literature. Words And Music By Bob Dylan, London, New York & Oxford 2012 (1976)
- Stephen Citron, A Complete Guide To The Craft Of Songwriting, New York 1985
- Patrick Crotty, Bob Dylan's Last Words, in: Neil Corcoran (ed.), Do You Mr. Jones. Bob Dylan With The poets And Professors, London 2002, p. 307 - 333
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[first posted in February 2007 on www.morerootsofbob.com]
© Jürgen Kloss