Ambiguity and Intertextuality in Bob Dylan's 'Like A Rolling Stone'

Essay 2015 9 Pages

American Studies - Culture and Applied Geography



1 Introduction

2 Analysis
2.1 Ambiguity: Lyrics and Interpretation(s)
2.2 Intertextuality: Dylan, Kerouac and Beat culture

3 Conclusion

List of References


It is beyond doubt that Bob Dylan is one of the most important and influential persons of 20th century popular music. His many songs are loved and renowned for their extraordinariness in terms of the lyrics, which are often ascribed a very high literary quality. Dylan has repeatedly been said to be one of the few persons who are able to combine music with poetry.

Dylan's song Like a Rolling Stone, recorded in 1965, certainly belongs to his most important pieces of work. It has been covered by countless artists such as Dylan's contemporaries Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix, but also by much younger and 'newer' artists like for example Green Day, a British 1990's and 2000's punkrock band. Another indicator for the quality and reputation of the song is the fact that the Rolling Stone - one of the world's most influential music magazines - voted it the best song ever in 2004.

The enormous popularity of the song is said to have several reasons; one of them surely is the fact that Like a Rolling Stone, respectively the album Highway 61 Revisited, marked a significant change in Dylan's music and career, moving away from the previously dominant folk music towards R'n'B and rock music.

This essay will concentrate on the lyrics of the song. There will be a close and detailed analysis of the most important passages of the song (mainly the chorus) with regard to their supposed meanings and implication. However, Dylan's lyrics usually tend to be very ambiguous and thus allow more than one 'right' or 'true' interpretation. This, of course, will be taken into account during the analysis. Another important element in Dylan's songtexts which can also be refound in Like a Rolling Stone is intertextuality; as a consequence, the lyrics of the song will be also put into context with Jack Kerouac's novel On The Road from 1957. At the end of this paper, there will be a short conclusion that sums up the previous analysis.


2.1 Ambiguity: Lyrics and Interpretation(s)

"In 1965, when 'Like a Rolling Stone' is released, Dylan officially becomes the angry young man of the counterculture - the first punk, if not the first rebel, with a cause that is not exactly known" (O'Dair 2009: 84). This assumption already hints at the core value of Dylan's music in general - and of Like a Rolling Stone in particular: On the one hand, he managed to become the voice of his generation due to his famous and extraordinary texts. On the other hand - and paradoxically -, it is common sense that his texts are not very easy to grasp and fully unterstand. The ambiguity in many of his lyrics has even let scholars more or less clueless - or, as Polito formulates it with regard to the mood in Like a Rolling Stone: "Is Dylan sardonic, tender, mean, funny?" (Polito 2009: 141).

Taking a closer look at the lyrics, we notice that throughout the whole song a person that we do not know is being addressed. It is obviously a female person because he calls her “doll“, “princess“ and “Miss Lonely“. The main topic is the addressee's downfall from her previously good and luxurious life, obviously to a state of poverty and even homelessness. Some critics have argued that the actual addressee here is a character from Dylan's real life, such as Edie Sedgwick or Joan Baez. However, this interpretation is only one amongst several others which make at least as much sense, if not even more, as will be shown below.

To arrive at plausible conclusions, several other passages have to be looked at, starting off with the song title. It is repeated in every chorus, which probably did not happen accidentally, but rather to emphasize the importance of the statement for the whole song. “Like a Rolling Stone“ is a derivation from the proverb “A rolling stone gathers no moss“. Its meaning, since it is ambivalent, defies an easy interpretation. It could mean that due to constant movement, one is not able to achieve anything (the achievement being represented here by the moss that grows on the stone) or to have any roots. Another interpretation would be that the moss is

a sign of stagnation, of laziness and a lack of progress. No matter which of these interpretations - the former being a rather positive one, the latter a rather negative one - is more appropriate, the term 'rolling stone' has been used a lot in literature and music as an allegory for the state of having no roots and no home and of moving without knowing where to go. This imagery is taken up in the chorus as well: “How does it feel / To be on your own / With no direction home / Like a rolling stone“ (Dylan 1965). It is almost impossible to tell which way this passage is being meant by Dylan: Does he exclaim the words with compassion, with anger, or even with a certain amount of satisfaction and schadenfreude?

The musical structure of the chorus could give ecidence to the latter assumption. It is important to mention that the chords of the chorus (and also of the rest of the song) are all in major keys: "the chorus 'How does it feel?' is exclaimed over a repeated three-chord sequence (C, F, G, F)" (Negus 2008: 39). Major chords usually evoke positive and happy emotions in the listener's head. Thus, the gleeful music stands in a clear contrast to the rather sad and pessimistic lyrics; one could get the impression that Bob Dylan is happy with the thought that the character in the lyrics has this rolling stone life now.

Coming back to the question of who else could be addressed in the lyrics, an alternative to Joan Baez et cetera could be that Dylan is speaking to the American people as a whole - or for the American people, which depends on the perspective. In the English language, 'you' can refer both to single persons and to groups, which make an interpretation like this possible. The song was created and released in 1965, a time which has brought along rapid and fundamental changes in society and youth culture. The leftist civil rights movement and the hippie culture which was closely connected to it were becoming increasingly popular, the conflicts between the younger generation and their parents who had fought the Second World War and had been raised in a very different world were omnipresent.



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Justus-Liebig-University Giessen – Institut für Anglistik
Bob Dylan Like A Rolling Stone Cultural Studies Intertextuality Beat




Title: Ambiguity and Intertextuality in Bob Dylan's 'Like A Rolling Stone'