Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan

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The first take of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ was in waltz time, and the waltz’s three-beat rhythm provides an important clue as to how the song’s lyrics have been composed. Most of the rhymes in the section quoted above are based on an anapaestic rhythm (two unstressed syllables followed by a stress: de-de-DA): ‘turned around’, ‘see the frowns’, ‘and the clowns’, ‘all come down’, ‘understood’, ‘ain’t no good’ etc. This is language actively shaped by waltz time. The ‘didn’t you?’ rhymes – along with ‘tricks for you’, ‘kicks for you’, ‘diplomat’, ‘Siamese cat’ – are crafted in a deliberately contrasting way, with one strong stress followed by a weak stress and then a final strong stress. This is quite an unusual rhythm: it is called a cretic by those who like to have names for such things. ‘Everything’ is a cretic, for example – and because of the stress patterns Dylan has established by the end of this verse, ‘steal’ has to rhythmically replace the three syllables of ‘everything’, which is, again, why the word sounds so strung out and emphatic. Such matters are often seen as ornaments of Dylan’s singing style and sometimes that is true, but it is not always the case: in ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ the way the song is sung is intimately related to its composition and its intricate rhythms and rhymes. Dylan’s third stanza rhyme scheme, for example, is AAAABCCDDBEFGFHFIFJKKKLLL – a structure of extraordinary complexity that seems more in keeping with the poetry of John Donne or George Herbert than what a listener might expect to find in a set of folk or rock music lyrics from the nineteen-sixties.

‘Like a Rolling Stone’, in fact, is one of those rare creative achievements in which a mastery of content is combined with a mastery of form, and – although these last two elements lie beyond the scope of this study – a mastery of both musical composition and performance. It is a triumph of Dylan’s artistry, and stands up as one of the best examples of lyric poetry written by anyone in the second half of the twentieth century.

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the Unkindness of Ravens If you have found our critical notes helpful, why not try the first Tower Notes novel, a historical fantasy set in the time of the Anglo-Saxon invasions.

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The Unkindness of Ravens by Anthony Paul