“John Brown” (1963)


Robert Shelton calls “John Brown” an attack on “the concept of war heroes.”  In it, perhaps Dylan does what most, if not all, effective anti-war literature does (Wilford Owen and Tim O’Brien come immediately to my mind, as does William Faulker’s Soldier’s Pay, and Peter Seeger’s cover of Baird’s song “Mrs. McGrath”)–it makes us feel what it’s like to be inside the shoes of a victim, specifically someone who returns as maimed and disfigured mentally from disillusionment as he/she is physically.

The stanza that houses the key empathy inspiring “shoe” rhyme is:

“Don’t you remember, Ma, when I went off to war
You thought it was the best thing I could do?
I was on the battleground, you were home . . . acting proud
You wasn’t there standing in my shoes”

Yes, it’s what been done in those shoes (you’d know what a drag it was to be me?)–seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and felt while standing in those shoes by, as Owen says in “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” “children ardent for some desperate glory,” that makes the war hero’s return home the time for those tears.

Here’s a Bob’s memorable live performance of it on in Germany, 1998.


“Idiot Wind” (1974)

I like Carrie Brownstein’s observation that Dylan’s voice in “Idiot Wind” grows “stronger and more dangerous with each line.”  “stars” is used twice in the song, at the midway point and late, and this increasing danger is present in the lines with “stars”–the danger being the speaker’s increasingly damning finger pointing that paints him as the victim. The first time it appears is in the fourth verse:


I woke up on the roadside, daydreamin’ ’bout the way things sometimes are
Visions of your chestnut mare shoot through my head and are makin’ me see stars
You hurt the ones that I love best and cover up the truth with lies
One day you’ll be in the ditch, flies buzzin’ around your eyes
Blood on your saddle


Here “stars” is a rhymed word with “are.”  Stars are not shooting here, the visions are, and they are sexual (chestnut mare, bare chest, or lower . . .  chestnut hair?).  These physical visions are tough to escape, but later in the song what hounds him is more abstract, more profound, harder to overcome:


Down the highway, down the tracks, down the road to ecstasy
I followed you beneath the stars, hounded by your memory
And all your ragin’ glory


It’s her memory, all of her, not just the attraction of her body, that he follows, and the stars are comprehensive–blanketing the world above him and around him, not relegated to his head, making him see stars.  In this verse the stars are real. Real, too, was how he “came pretty close” to revealing his “personal life, he admitted to Bill Flanagan.


Dylan sang this song in a memorable performance at Colorado State University with Sara Dylan in the audience.  The song becoming that much more dangerous:

“Brownsville Girl” (1986)

Christopher Ricks makes a fuss about “lines” in “Brownsville Girl.” “[M]uch is made of lines in this song,” he says.  And, of course, songs/poems are made up of lines, as Ricks acknowledges.  Dylan is hip to being at the end of the line or over the line as themes but also as phrases that pertain and bring attention to the lines on the page, which Dylan puts in the air when he sings them.  “She studied the lines of my face” is a famous line of Dylan’s, and aren’t the lines of a song as personal as a songwriter’s/poet’s face?

I recently tweeted that when I listen to “Brownsville Girl” I feel like I’m at a pub overhearing Bob conversing with the bartender.  What we remember most about “Brownsville Girl” is the unique conversational prose he pours into it.  But there’s a great deal of rhyming in it, end of the line ones where we expect rhymes.  And good ones, too, some over the line, over the top:  “soft”/”off,” “soul”/”control,” “curls”/”world.”

The word“said” is what’s over the line in “Brownsville Girl,” appearing 9 times to “line”s mere 3. “said” never ends a line, but it appears so often that it smacks of internal rhyming, perhaps to keep the prose in line; it’s a poem Dylan seems to want to remind us with the end of the line rhymes.  When the prose gets going, “said” seems to reign it in.  This verse is a good example:

She said, “Welcome to the land of the living dead”
You could tell she was so broken hearted
She said, “Even the swap meets around here are getting pretty corrupt”

Also, In “Brownsville Girl,” the word “stars” refers to celebrities. Dylan recalls Gregory Peck, playing a character in a movie,  shot in the back:

There was a movie I seen one time, I think I sat through it twice
I don’t remember who I was or where I was bound
All I remember about it was it starred Gregory Peck, he wore a gun
and he was shot in the back

Seems like a long time ago, long before the stars were torn down

Dylan had his share of being torn down by fans and the media, and the 80’s may very well have been his time to recover from feeling beat down.  But this verse,  not totally rhyme-less, “bound”/”down” keeping it from being all prose, comes only five years after John Lennon was killed in front of his apartment in NYC, shot in the back by Mark David Chapman.  The allusion to it gives the song a mournful feel or rather assists the mournful feel throughout.   The mourning continues; forgetting that day is impossible. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be his friend . . . can’t . . . Imagine . . .

If I’m being honest, I’d have to admit that when I first heard this song I thought knocked-out loaded was exactly the condition Dylan must have been in when he wrote it.  I thought that for awhile.  And then the likes of Michael Gray and Stephen Scobie set me straight, and I started to see why so many put this song on their list of his greatest.  Gray’s observation especially that “uncertain crossings of one sort of another are a recurrent motif in “‘Brownsville Girl’” raised my awareness of its depth.

Here’s an alternative outtake version apparently from Empire Burlesque sessions.  Enjoy!


“The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1963)

That downward stare of Dylan’s on the cover of The Times They Are A-Changin emanates disdain, scorn for what he sees, but it’s a look of contemplation, too, as if what’s worse is what the world is forcing him to think about.

The Times They Are A Changin” is all about breaking from a disdainful past and the last verse hits this message home with the “past“/”fast” rhyme taking the lead from “fast” leading the charge:

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’

I admire Christopher Rick’s observation that “the refrain at the end of each verse is itself unchanging” . . . and so each time it is sung it sends the message that all things must change.  This song, as Ricks says, “Was not enlightenment dawning once and for all” . . . “the times are still a-changin” and always will be. The present now will always “later be past”–this is a song of hope–for a change for the better–for forward thinking for being “younger than that now” all the time, no matter the times we live or die in.

Ricks also observed that the word “last” is used in that final verse of “The Times They Are A-Changin‘.”  The same can be said of “Chimes of Freedom”:  “As we listened one last time an’ we watched with one last look.”  Though not in rhyme, but in repetition the word chimes for us in that last verse.  But in “Times” the three rhymes with “last” chime incessantly:


The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’
And the first one now will later be last

Ricks and Shelton notice the Biblical link to the ending line of this verse, Ricks citing Matthew 19:30:  “But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.”  Shelton, Mark 10:31:  But many that are first will be last and the last first.”  In “Chimes,” those in last, the “underdog soldier,” “the rebel,” “the luckless,” the gentle, and “the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse” line up sequentially in the attention Dylan gives them to have their freedom sounded.  In “Times” the warning is that those in last will no longer be, predicting the demise of those who benefit from and exploit the status quo.

Here’s Bob singing “The Times They Are A-Changin'” in 2010, at the White House, perhaps no better place for this song to sing about the last being first:

“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” (1967)

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“You Ain’t Goin Nowhere” creates a brain twister with the double-negative “ain’t”/”nowhere.” Imagine the degrading comment “You Ain’t Goin Anywhere” or worse “You Are Goin Nowhere.” So “You Ain’t Goin Nowhere” is actually a positive message because it means you are going somewhere or at least nowhere is where you won’t be going.
This is an easy-breezy front porch singing kind of song. Relax, enjoy life, don’t have a care in the world.  And the “went” rhyme made with “sent” and stretched into “tent” in the second of four verses helps that tone:
I don’t care
How many letters they sent
Morning came and morning went
Pick up your money
And pack up your tent
You ain’t goin’ nowhere
Whoo-ee! Ride me high
Tomorrow’s the day
My bride’s gonna come
Oh, oh, are we gonna fly
Down in the easy chair!
Letters were sent, and the morning done went, but you’re not staying; nope, you ain’t goin nowhere, so pack that tent cause you’re going somewhere, and whoo-ee won’t that be fun, cause the future is not now, not today; today is about the road and the joy of living life day by day, even minute by minute on it.
Such an enjoyable song to listen to.  Here’s Bob singing it live in Bournemouth, 1997:

“Sweetheart Like You” (1983)

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Sweetheart Like You” is one of those songs that make you say, “This is it; this is the one that captured the sound Dylan wanted during this phase of his music.  For me, “Someday Baby” is the song that did the same from 1997 to 2004.  I feel both songs have a certain quality to them that Dylan successfully channeled, epitomizing these different segments of his artistic life.
The line with “glass” in it is a classic onomatopoeia moment of Dylan’s, maybe his best:
You can be known as the most beautiful woman
Who ever crawled across cut glass to make a deal


Whatever crawling across cut glass would be like is the cr/acr/cut/ss sounds combined with Dylan singing them.

I put this up there with Paul Simon’s “sitting on a sofa on a Sunday afternoon” or Eliot’s “pair of ragged claws scuttling across the sands of silent seas.”

No rhyming attention with this song, but  a brilliant sound effect, poetic, smooth as glass.

Many Dylan fans will remember the video:

“Spirit On The Water” (2006)

Spirit on the Water” consists of 20 verses, each one with perfect rhyming second and fourth lines, the 17th, with “will” rhyming with “hill”:

High on the hill
You can carry all my thoughts with you
You’ve numbed my will
This love could tear me in two

This is one of the ten verses with both alternating lines rhyming.  With half the verses having one rhyme and the other ten having two, Dylan’s rhyming ebbs and flows as if his rhyming spirit is on water in this song.

In the last verse, “hill” appears again,

You think I’m over the hill
You think I’m past my prime
Let me see what you got
We can have a whoppin’ good time

but he seems over the rhyming hill with the ill-begotten “got” spoiling the couplet, but not over the hill with “prime” and “time” the last rhyme in the song, a sign of what he’s really ready for, not to be over the hill, but still in prime time.

Dylan not in in his prime at age 72, but not over the hill either, in Lowell, MA, April 2013 (thanks Brosef Wilson, whoever you are).


“Mississippi” (1996)

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Mississippi” is one of my favorite Dylan songs.  I love the tone of his voice and the atmosphere it creates.  I somewhat playfully imagine that the speaker is Odysseus.  I think the song can be interpreted that way with a little stretching.  Odysseus has a knack for staying too long in places in The Odyssey, namely with Calypso and Circe:

Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long

The verse with the “star“/”are” rhyme works with The Odyssey as well if you want to let it.  Though Odysseus crosses the “wine-dark sea” to wind up with Nausicaa, a river is impressive enough to get to where you want to be with someone:

Well I got here followin’ the southern star
I crossed that river just to be where you are

 That southern star also could be someone like Charlie Patton or Jimmie Rodgers, but if it’s a celestial one it could be the one over Ithaca, south of many of the places Odysseus stayed too long.

The lines that rhyme “fast” with “past” in “Mississippi” hit home the mythological reference to Odysseus in The Odyssey:

Well my ship’s been split to splinters and it’s sinkin’ fast
I’m drownin’ in the poison, got no future, got no past
But my heart is not weary, it’s light and it’s free
I’ve got nothin’ but affection for all those who’ve sailed with me

Odysseus’s ship is split to splinters in Book 12:

Zeus with thunder and lightning together crashed on our vessel,

and, struck by the thunderbolt of Zeus, she spun in a circle,

and all was full of brimstone. My men were thrown in the water,

and bobbing like sea crows they were washed away on the running

waves all around the black ship, and the god took away their homecoming.

Holding onto what’s left of the ship, Odysseus arrives on the island of Calypso, where he eventually sets sail on a raft and winds up on the shores of Phaecia where he is stripped to nothing, even clothes.  It is here that he must feel that the past he wishes to return to, his home in Ithaka, where he is king, is lost.  Dylan,  conversely, as any study of his life will show, has tried to escape from his past, even lying about it to erase it, “pure hokum–hophead talk,” he calls it in Chronicles.

What Odysseus and Dylan have in common though are women who have come on the scene to save them.  For Odysseus, when he arrives on the shores of Phaecia, Nausicaa, the daughter of the king and queen, pulls him out of the emotional depths (sinkin fast), guiding him to what results in his return home (nostos).  Dylan’s savior women, Suze, Joan, Sara, Carolyn all have, in some way, pulled him out of one phase into another, pulled him out of a sinkin into a past that is a kind of death, one that would end his knack or talent for shape-shifting, from one music to another, one sound to another, one image to another, one personna, etc.

The ancient Greek myth of Nausicaa, by the way, has morphed into Japanese pop culture in the form of a protector of the environment.  As such, she protects our past, the one where nature is not violated, kept unharmed by human greed.  Some things, perhaps the myth and Dylan are telling us, should never become past, never even come to the point of sinkin fast.

The “said“/”bed” rhyme in “Mississippi” is the opposite of an illogical eye rhyme, one that has words that look like they should rhyme but don’t, like “cough”/dough”  “said” does not look like it rhymes with “bed” but it does, confirmed only through speech.  Likewise, dreams are not reality, and so dreaming of sleeping in Rosie’s bed is one thing:

I was thinkin’ ’bout the things that Rosie said
I was dreaming I was sleepin’ in Rosie’s bed

The reality another.  Of course, thinking can lead to dreaming. Rosie’s words stirred up in the mind can jingle a dream that puts the dreamer smack dab in her bed.  The voice and the physical strange bed partners? Not in this song where staying one day too long can make you hear and dream things that later on you might say, that was the one thing I did wrong.

Again, Odysseus knows a thing or two about staying too long.  The day he does so with the Sun-god he falls asleep (dreaming of Circe? Calypso?) and while he does, his men eat the Sun-god’s sacred cows as depicted in this painting by Johannus Stradanus:

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“Mississippi” ends with the message, “You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way.” Odysseus’ men pay for their forbidden act with their lives, Odysseus for his sleep with the loss of his men.  Yes, you can go back but not all the way back, as you thought of, maybe dreamed.  Dreams do affect reality, as do rhymes about saying and sleeping.

This song slept for six years before it was released on Love and Theft in 2002, and stayed unperformed way too long until Bob sang it in Oregon on October 9, 2001.  Here’s audio of that live performance.


“Like A Rolling Stone” (1965)


Dylan asks many questions in his songs, the interrogative mood pervades but sometimes is used as a disguise for flat out interrogation.  Even when he tells us where the answer is, as in “blowin in the wind,” we’re implicated as accomplices for the answer always being out of reach.  But sometimes the question is aimed more specifically at a person, a character in the song; isn’t that right Mr. Jones? (Do you, Mr. Jones), or to the women in “Is Your Love in Vain” and “What Was It You Wanted,” or the male in “Positively Fourth Street” who is asked several  questions that could make anyone’s skin crawl, one being “Do you take me for such a fool?” But no song asks as penetrating a question as the one that dominates the chorus in “Like A Rolling Stone,” “How does it feel?”

Christopher Ricks has added up the “you’s” used in the song, almost 30, and in the last verse, 8.  The attack on the recipient of abuse (deserved or not) is unrelenting.  I used to think this was a song with Dylan playing his pronoun shifting game, the “you” being “I”; in other words, he was asking these questions of himself.  But I see it now as a story of a former prima donna whose world of privilege, affluence, and entitlement has collapsed, and the speaker is thrilled to mock her new found rock bottom status and see it as deserved and an opportunity to revenge her treatment of him and/or others in the form of song.

But, in the 1960’s, the question burst out of the context of the song.  “How does it feel?” is a question for a generation, maybe everyone’s since; it is a question with so much visceral power in it that it forces self-examination, exploration, and reflection.  And the answer may not be a negative one.  In Dylan’s Vision of Sin, Ricks studies the evolution of the “a rolling stone gathers no  moss” parable.  In agrarian societies, the answer to “how does it feel to be on your own,” should be negative; moss implies roots, staying put meant one keeping to responsibility and remaining dependable. It’s also where the money was earned and available.  In the 60’s, however, the answer may be positive; to be on one’s own was a goal …a dream; forging out on one’s own meant releasing the shackles of others’ expectations, striking out against social norms, and breaking toxic ties that bind with dehumanizing impact.  The auditor in this song may not feel that way now, but perhaps in time being on her own and far away from the life she knew might be reaffirming, as in the Willa Cather phrase, “the road is all, the end is nothing.”

How does any of this interpreting relate to the rhymes in the song? Well, I see stones with moss and others with none; in other words I see patterns that maintain a certain structure, no departures, no striking out against the rhyming  norms and even expectations of the song.  Each 9 line (no changes in that) verse’s rhyming pattern is a/b/c/b/d/d/d/d/e.  And each of the “b” rhymes are echo rhymes, merely repeated words, except for the last verse where “made” rhymes with “babe,” making the verse, on its own, so to speak (sing?).  Likewise the famous bridge with the “How does it feel question, remains the same, sung 4 times,

How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

but with one exception.  The first time Dylan sings it the “With no direction home” is absent. That version of the bridge is on its own.

Finally, the 4 verses are united by the “e” rhymes that end each one; the rhyming words are “meal,” “deal,” “steal,” and “conceal.”  The ending of every verse has its own “e” sound, unique to each, but not exactly when each part of the whole is taken into account.  Dylan’s use of melisma to stretch out the syllable “eeeeeeeee” sound forces the listener to hear the reverberating power of the each verse’s contribution to the ultimate question, “How does it feeeeeeeeeel?” Each verse feels like a rolling stone with no moss, but together, the moss, for good or bad, has taken root through the whole song.

Here’s Dylan sing it with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers during their Australian tour in 1986.



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