Vocal performance and speech intonation: Bob Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone".
Michael Daley, York University, Toronto
During my thesis research, I studied the vocal style of Bob Dylan from 1960 to 1966. In that six year span, I found that four distinctive sub-styles could be delineated. The last of these, beginning in 1965 and continuing up to Dylan's motorcycle accident in July 1966, is probably his most well-known sub-style. This sub-style seems to lie in a middle ground between song and speech, with a great deal of sliding pitch and rhythmically free text declamation. This is also the time period when Dylan had his greatest commercial and critical success, peaking with the release in July 1965 of "Like A Rolling Stone". In addition to the song's commercial success, a number of commentators have pointed to it as an artistic peak, many of them citing "Like A Rolling Stone" as the most important single performance of Dylan's 44-year (at the time of writing) recording career.
My intention here is to analyze a recorded performance of a single verse of one of Dylan’s most popular songs, observing the ways in which intonation details relate to lyrics and performance. The analysis is used as source material for a close reading of the semantic, affective and ‘playful’ meanings of the performance, and this reading is compared with some published accounts of the song’s reception.
For this analysis, I have drawn on the linguistic methodology formulated by Michael Halliday. Halliday has found speech intonation, which includes pitch movement, timbre, syllabic rhythm and loudness, to be an integral part of English grammar and crucial to the transmission of certain kinds of meaning. Intonation patterns are shared by the fluent speakers of a given language, and the understanding of basic intonational gestures precedes words both in infant language acquisition and in evolutionary brain development. That is, intonation is a lower brain function than word recognition, thus developing as a perceptual tool much earlier. Speech intonation is a deeply-rooted and powerfully meaningful aspect of human communication. It is plausible that a system so powerful in speech might have some bearing on the communication of meaning in sung performance. This is the premise by which I am applying Halliday's methods to this performance.
The musical object in question is the originally released studio recording of “Like A Rolling Stone”, a performance that has generated much discussion among Dylan’s commentators and fans. I begin with a short history of the song’s reception among critics and fans, as well as the assessments of Dylan himself.
“Like A Rolling Stone” was recorded on June 16, 1965 and was released as a single on July 20, later appearing on the album Highway 61 Revisited. It was an immediate success, eventually climbing to #2 on the Billboard pop chart and #1 on the Cashbox chart. The song was somewhat different from the top ten fare of the time, though. At a length of over six minutes (it was chopped for radio play) it was significantly longer than the two-and-a-half or three minute standard length then dominating pop radio, with a raucous guitar and organ based arrangement and four verses of dense, rapid-fire verbiage. It is generally agreed by commentators that the lyrics, at least on the surface, recount the privileged upbringing and subsequent fall into desperate poverty of a second person “Miss Lonely”. The narrator’s accusations and unflattering observations are couched in a series of declarative statements and questions, culminating after each verse in the famous refrain: “How does it feel…to be on your own…with no direction home, a complete unknown, like a rolling stone” (there are slight variations in the refrain from stanza to stanza). Perhaps the most strikingly unique aspect of the record is Dylan’s vocal performance, with its use of nasal, sliding pitches and a speechlike, highly rhythmic declamatory style. Dylan later described, in somewhat stylized terms, the genesis of the song:
“I wrote it as soon as I got back from England. It was ten pages long. It wasn’t called anything, just a rhythm thing on paper – all about my steady hatred directed at some point that was honest. In the end it wasn’t hatred. Revenge, that’s a better word. It was telling someone they didn’t know what it was all about, and they were lucky. I had never thought of it as a song, until one day I was at the piano, and on paper it was singing ‘How does it feel?’ in a slow motion pace, in the utmost of slow motion. It was like swimming in lava. Hanging by their arms from a birch tree. Skipping, kicking the tree, hitting a nail with your foot. Seeing someone in the pain they were bound to meet with. I wrote it. I didn’t fail. It was straight (to Jules Siegel, quoted in Scaduto 1973:244-5).
Whether or not one chooses to take Dylan’s comments at face value, they provide us with a sense of the artist’s own perception of his creative process and the degree to which the endeavour succeeded. They also give us a glimpse into the visual and gestural correlatives of Dylan’s sonic sense; he refers here to outward movement, directed towards a specific point. These metaphors, I suggest, are not arbitrary. They are in fact strongly indexed to the metaphorical constructs of much of the reception of “Like A Rolling Stone”, as well as the gestural aspects of Dylan’s use of vocal pitch in the performance.
In addition to the popular acclaim accorded to Dylan’s recording shortly after its release, a steady procession of commentators on Dylan’s life and work have offered their own assessments. The larger works from which the following quotations are drawn include Dylan biographies as well as short articles about Dylan and more scholarly analytical works (in the cases of Mellers and Bowden):
When you heard ‘Rolling Stone’ back then it was like a cataclysm, like being taken to the edge of the abyss, drawn to some guillotine of experience…[Dylan was] biting off a word, spitting out venom, spreading a virulent emotion, infecting the listener (Scaduto 1973:245).
…steamrollering all that had gone before and spiraling onwards through outrageous rhymes and meter, lyrics flung like accusations, affronting yet compelling, that age-old fascination which lures unwary travelers right to the heart of darkness (Humphries and Bauldie 1991:57).
Rock bottom intensity of feeling…he tells us what he feels himself, he projects himself with eerie immediacy into the feelings of others, and in so doing he shows us what we feel too (Herdman 1982:14).
The definitive statement that both personal and artistic fulfillment must come, in the main, by being truly on one’s own (Nelson 1966:107).
…the absence of any personal pronouns (sic) sucks the listener into the song…the song’s ‘you’ gets thoroughly conquered in both sense and sound (Bowden 1982:104).
Although the words are dismissive, the music – with its jaunty repeated notes and eyebrow-arching rising thirds…is positive in total effect (Mellers 1985:140).
“Hugh Dunnit” writing in The Telegraph (a Bob Dylan fan magazine):
…his birth cry is the primal demon voice that whoops out the surging refrains of this song…each is a searing, vituperative taunt, designed to needle to the bone. But the tone of the words (as sung) and music is unmistakably joyous, celebratory. [Dylan] is exultant, free, on his own, ecstatic that he is as he once was, a complete unknown – unknown because unknowable (quoted in Williams 1991:153).
While these assessments are rather broadly variant in tone and content, some recurring themes are discernible. I have grouped some salient metaphors and descriptors from the critical history of “Like A Rolling Stone” (including Dylan’s own commentary) into five main thematic areas below:
Thematic area 1:
Thematic area 2:
“sucks the listener in”
“lures unwary travelers”
siren song metaphor
“drawn to some guillotine of experience”
Thematic area 3:
“personal and artistic fulfillment”
Thematic area 4:
“spitting out venom”
“directed at some point”
Thematic area 5:
Intensity of feeling
“I wrote it. I didn’t fail. It was straight”
Thematic area 1 parallels the mood and content of the lyrics as they appear on paper – a strong antagonism is conveyed through the constant, invasive questioning and damning judgments of the invisible first person (who may or may not be identified as Dylan himself). I would doubt, though, that the lyrics alone create such a strong mood of condemnation. Dylan’s overall vocal timbre here is quite hard and nasal, the kind of vocal sound that might accompany a ‘tongue-lashing’ by someone who clearly feels that they are in the right, perhaps directed at a child or some other person in a position of lesser power. Such a tone suits this classic monologic text, whre the life history and inner thoughts of the “you” are co-opted by the narrator who is himself invisible, that is, not named, not described: an inviolable, inscrutable disembodied voice. Much of Dylan’s expressive output around the time that “Like A Rolling Stone” was recorded displays a similar style of interpersonal communication.
Thematic area 2 groups together references to the ‘attractiveness’ of the performance, its power to draw the listener towards something which, when it is named at all, is vaguely dangerous or forbidding. Humphries seems to refer to the ancient Greek myth of the Sirens, who lured travelers towards destruction with an irresistible song. Scaduto, perhaps specifying the nature of the destruction, refers to a “guillotine of experience”, which might suggest that the listener experiences some irrevocable change in worldview once drawn into “the abyss”. These types of metaphors are difficult to reconcile with the sense of the lyrics as written, so it seems that this theme of ‘attractiveness’ might be connected in some way with thematic area 5, which is concerned with virtuosic control. The “abyss” might be the potentiality of the listener herself being targeted for this kind of vitriol, while at the same time she is drawn to the source by the sheer mastery with which the antagonism is delivered.
Thematic area 3, headed by “positive message”, primarily comes from Paul Nelson’s 1966 essay, which suggests that all of the characters in “Like A Rolling Stone” are actually in some way Dylan. This theme was taken up in the Telegraph, whose author connects the performance with a projection of Dylan as triumphantly breaking the chains of his safe, successful ‘folksinger’ career in favour of some new, uncharted musical terrain in the rock milieu. Thus the ‘story’ of the verses is just a scaffolding upon which to hang the exultant chorus. Rather than chalking up this interpretation to creative critique, though, I would suggest that this, too, is an impression based on performative factors more than lyric sense. The band’s performance certainly helps matters along in this regard. There is nothing careful about the way the studio musicians barrel through the song, in spite of Al Kooper’s famous story (found in his autobiography, Backstage Passes) that this song marked his first ever try at organ. Dylan, too, contributes sloppily transcendent rhythm guitar and harmonica flourishes. The harmonic structure of the song itself can also be seen as a series of affirmations, with the verse consisting primarily of stepwise climbs from the I to the V chord, which is held until a satisfying return is made to the tonic I. The inevitable perfect cadences that begin each line of text are contradicted only once in the form, when a IV chord intervenes at the prechorus. This IV chord then reverses the movement of the previous lines, falling stepwise down to the I until the upward movement is restored with an extended II – IV – V climb. The choruses condense the stepwise climbs of the verses into terse I – IV – V statements which Dylan might have associated with the irony-free rock’n’roll aesthetics of “Twist and Shout” and “La Bamba”. I submit, then, that the commentators who associate “Like A Rolling Stone” with joy, celebration and liberation might be hearing these values primarily as embodied in the music, despite the fact that their critical faculties might impel them to look to the lyrics first.
Thematic area 4 might be fruitfully compared to thematic area 2 in that they both seem connected to gesture, space, movement and energy. Whereas area 2 contains metaphors of attraction, area 4 refers to outward projection, ostensibly from the same source that attracts. The references to “spitting out” and “lyrics flung” directs our attention towards the mouth, and indeed Dylan referred to this song on a number of occasions as “vomitific”. Could this thematic area, along with area 2, be related to various listeners’ connections with the corporeality of the performance? We hear Dylan’s mouth as he sings, but we can also envision his facial expression, perhaps his body movements as well. This we deduce from the aural landscape of the recording, which gives us information about Dylan’s vocal timbre, the speed of enunciation, and other details, but I believe that it is in the area of pitch that we will find the greatest correlation to gestural metaphors. As we will see, much of Dylan’s vocal pitch use in “Like A Rolling Stone” finds him taking a syllable and describing a kind of arc, with medium or short rise and a longer fall. This parallels somewhat the spatial path of an object thrown into the air. And since Dylan performs this arc repeatedly, sometimes several times in a single line of text, it follows that a listener might hear the words as “flung”, or even “spiraling outwards”, as each arc is succeeded by another.
Thematic area 5 contains metaphors of ‘sureness’ and ‘effectiveness’, connected with what might be though of as virtuosic expressive control. Robert Walser has traced the 18th century origins of the term “virtuoso”, a word that is popularly though of as referring to technical mastery. Walser points out that this technical mastery was always in the service of expressive and rhetorical control (see Walser 1993). The ways that this virtuosity is manifested in “Like A Rolling Stone” are twofold. As I hope to demonstrate, Dylan uses vocal pitch to emphasize the lyric sense – this may be interpreted as a rhetorical use of performative virtuosity. But his division of phrases does not always serve the ‘sense’ of the discourse; on the contrary, his re-alignment of points of emphasis in the lyrics, again through pitch use, can be understood as playful. The virtuoso makes meaningful performances, but he also shows off what he can do. By sometimes obscuring meaning, he displays his mastery.
A close reading of Dylan’s vocal performance in “Like A Rolling Stone” will allow for a better understanding of the metaphorical constructions that followed in its wake, in the form the critical responses recounted above. This close reading will consist in the main of an analysis, based on Michael Halliday’s linguistic method, of pitch use in the second verse and chorus. First, a word on Halliday’s method.
Through much of the history of linguistic inquiry, the written word has occupied a privileged place as an object of study. Languages are traditionally analyzed primarily in terms of their grammars; this reflects the popular belief that words and sentences constitute the essential part of human verbal communication. As such, spoken language is routinely transcribed to written form for analysis. Of course, popular knowledge also tells us that ‘how you say something is often as important as what you say’. Every native speaker of English performs the language in some way that communicates things that the written word can not. The scientific understanding of this ‘sonic sense’ of speech, however, has developed slowly and fitfully until recent years.
As early as the 1930s, work began to be undertaken towards the understanding of speech intonation, the universe of sonic details that accompany every utterance. These details include large and small gradations in pitch, timbre, amplitude and rhythm. The British linguist Michael Halliday has formulated a cogent system for understanding speech intonation in the context of a “functional” English grammar in his 1970 monograph A Course in Spoken English: Intonation and his larger work from 1994, An Introduction to Functional Grammar. Since Halliday’s work on the nature of speech has constituted one of the starting points for my own research, I include here a thumbnail explanation of his theory as it applies to the present work. The following short explanation is a paraphrase of some of the ideas put forth in Halliday’s 1970 and 1994 publications, with an aim towards setting the stage for the analysis here.
Intonation in English is organized in units Halliday calls tone groups. Halliday says of the tone group:
The tone group is one unit of information, one 'block' in the message that the speaker is communicating; and so it can be of any length. The particular meaning that the speaker wishes to convey may make it necessary to split a single clause into two or more tone groups, or to combine two or more clauses into one tone group (Halliday 1970:3-4).
The pattern by which tone groups are distributed throughout speech, called tonality, is crucial to the sense of an utterance. The speaker divides up the stream of spoken words into groups, and this reveals to the listener how to mentally organize the information. Almost all of the time, tonality follows a predictable course, with tone groups basically corresponding to grammatical clauses. But when it is disrupted, as in Bob Dylan’s 1965 studio performance of "Like A Rolling Stone", grammatical sense can be fundamentally altered.
Each tone group has a tonic syllable, a place of prominence which the speaker seeks to mark as most important and which carries the most pronounced pitch change. It often carries the burden of "new information" in the clause and as such the normative place of a tonic syllable is on the last word in a clause. Placement of the tonic syllable in places other than this is understood to be contrastive. The placement of tonic prominence is referred to as tonicity.
Halliday has identified five basic tones, or pitch contours, in English. Tone interacts with tonality (distribution of tone groups) and tonicity (placement of tonic prominence) to create meaning in English intonation. Following are the tones identified in Halliday's system:
simple tone groups:
tone 1 falling
tone 2 high rising, or falling-rising (pointed)
tone 3 low rising
tone 4 falling-rising (rounded)
tone 5 rising-falling (rounded)
I have transcribed the lyrics of the second verse and chorus of “Like A Rolling Stone” using an adaptation of Halliday’s notation for speech intonation. The second verse is not dissimilar to the other three verses in style, but I chose it because it seemed to me to contain the widest variety of playful inflections and pitch gestures. The tones themselves (the numerals which begin each tone group) were chosen on the basis of their resemblance to Dylan’s use of sung pitch, as shown here. Each tone group is set off in a separate line of text and framed in double slash marks; syllables with tonic prominence are underlined and rhythmic feet are divided by single slash marks.
a) //5 ah you// (rising, then falling, tone)
b) //1 gone// (falling tone)
c) //1 to the/ finest//
d) //1 school//
f) //1 right//
g) //1'^miss/lonely/but you/know you/only/used to/get//
h) //5 juiced in/it//
i) //1 ^no/body's/ever/taught/you/how to/live out/on/the street//
j) //5 ^and/now you're/gonna/have to/get/used to//
k) //5 it//
1) //1 ^you/say you'd/never//
m) //1 compro/mise//
n) //1 with the/mystery/tramp but/now you//
o) //1 realize//
p) //1 he's not/selling/any//
q) //1 alibis//
r) //1 as you/stare in/to the/vacuum/of his/eyes//
s) //1 and say//
t) //1 do you/want to//
u) //1 make a/deal//
v) //1 how does it/feel//
w)//1 how does it/feel//
x) //1 to be/on your/own//
y) //1 '^with/no di/rection/home//
z) //2 a com/plete un/known//
aa) //2 like a/rolling/stone//
Below I have transcribed the same verse and chorus "grammatically", using line breaks to mark off likely clause divisions:
ah you gone to the finest school all right miss lonely
but you know you only used to get juiced in it
nobody's ever taught you how to live out on the street
and now you're gonna have to get used to it
you say you'd never compromise with the mystery tramp
but now you realize he's not selling any alibis
as you stare into the vacuum of his eyes
and say "Do you want to make a deal?"
How does it feel?
How does it feel to be on your own
with no direction home
a complete unknown
like a rolling stone?
The verse begins with a tone 5 (line a). This being a tone group unto itself, it would be plausible to refer to this speech function as an initiating call; tone 5 in this case has a meaning of "insistence". This is the second verse, after all, which can be thought of as constituting an expansion of the ideas begun in the first. Thus the highly tonicized first pitch gesture of this verse might be interpreted as a kind of fanfare; musicologist Philip Tagg characterizes such strong upward pitch sweeps as "a call to attention and action, a strong movement upward an outwards...energetic and heroic" (Tagg 1979:14).
What follows is a rapid-fire series of Tone 1s. The use of the Tone 1 pitch fall here is unremarkable in itself, but it is the tonicity characteristics that are unusual here. The listener is bombarded with a series of tonicized words (tonic prominence is used in normal speech as a pointer to the new information in an utterance) and Dylan gives tonic prominence to nearly every word in the first part of the first line. This overloading of new information pointers renders the text as forceful and intrusive upon the listener. There is a sense of an intoxicating sensory overload.
Right away a general non-alignment of tone groups as sung with the grammar of the written lyric is evident. This manifests itself in the distribution of tone groups in many different places within the grammatical clause, as well as the placement of tonic prominence on syllables other than the last lexical item in the clause. In tone groups e) and f) this unusual, seemingly indiscriminate use of tonality breaks up the cohesion of the phrase "all right", a phrase that has become fused, or indivisible, through popular use. The phrase is rendered contrastive to its usual meaning and marks the word "all" as a piece of new information. This would force the cliched phrase to be processed in terms of its actual meaning, rather than as a purely 'textual' conjunctive phrase, which it has become in popular usage. Thus the listener hears "all right" as an emphatic confirmation of the text immediately preceding. This technique seeks to renew the cliche, something that Dylan has done lexically in other songs by substituting unexpected words in common phrases (see Ricks 1987).
It would be grammatically plausible to segment the first line of this verse into two clauses as follows:
ah you gone to the finest school all right miss lonely
but you know you only used to get juiced in it
The second clause would usually be distributed over one tone group. This does not happen here, though not because of the overloading of tone groups that occurred in the first clause. Instead, the last part of the first clause ("miss lonely") is included in the second clause's tone group, which itself cuts off at "get" rather than being completed with "juiced in it". Thus the normative placement of the tone group on the clause is shifted backward by one phrase. This has the effect of presenting a grammatically incoherent group of words as a single package of information. This clouds the meaning of the clause somewhat, but perhaps more importantly it constitutes a poetic strike against grammar, at least as it appears in straight written narrative. Clearly Dylan, like Chuck Berry and others before him, is reveling in his virtuosic masterof the medium of sung text here.
The next couple of lines contain relatively little in the way of pitch playfulness, even though symmetry would suggest that the pitch falls should continue at the same rate. Dylan, though, refuses to do the expected. When the chorus begins, tonic syllables seem to be in their proper places. But Dylan throws in a few more curveballs. Curiously, the last two lines are sung in contours similar to tone 2. This would seem to introduce a mood of questioning – tone 2 indicates uncertainty, most often. But this coincides musically with the melodic resolution to the tonic, or home note, so the overall effect is that of closure.
Close reading of the vocal performance of a song, as I have attempted here, can yield a good deal of information about how meaning is handled beyond the lexical and grammatical levels of the lyrics. In the case of the second verse of "Like A Rolling Stone", these prosodic details can be seen in the context of that song's reception; intonational play and emphasis in the performance might be connected to perceptions of virtuosic expressive control, a sense of 'expressivity' or 'intensity of feeling', and gestural metaphors such as "flung" and "spiralling outwards". On the other hand, certain aspects of reception can be more precisely connected to other facets of the musical object: a sense of strong antagonism might be traced mainly to the lyrics, while a feeling of celebration and joy may be connected to the general raucousness and energy of the band's performance.
Though I am certain that pitch in sung language does mean in a significantly patterned way, I am also aware that singing is not speech, and other factors do enter the semantic and affective landscape of musical expression. Nonetheless, a look at Dylan's use of pitch in this song, through the lens of linguistic speech intonation, goes a long way toward explaining the precise nature of Dylan's communication of meaning in sung performance. One need only observe the many gestural and metaphorical correlations between the linguistic aspects of the performance and the effects of that performance (as recounted in the reception history) on listeners. A certain thoroughgoing nature of Dylan's aesthetic is suggested here, with musical, linguistic, gestural and (perhaps subsuming all of these) metaphorical aspects all articulating a cohesive, deeply embedded system of drives and directions. Postponing any further investigation into this broader inquiry for now, this analysis of vocal performance in the second verse of "Like A Rolling Stone" reveals much common ground between speech and song in the transmission and reception of meaning, though the precise nature of this shared sign-system may only be understood through further interdisciplinary inquiry.