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  • Vocal Performance and Speech Intonation:Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone"
  • Michael Daley (bio)

This paper is drawn from a larger study of Bob Dylan's vocal style from 1960 to 1966. In that six-year span, I found that four distinctive sub-styles could be delineated.1 The last of these, beginning in 1965 and continuing until 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. This reading is then 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. Patterns of intonation 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 [End Page 84] evolutionary brain development. That is, intonation is a lower brain function than word recognition, and thus develops 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 some assessments of Dylan himself.

"Like A Rolling Stone" was recorded on June 16, 1965 and was released as a single on July 20th of the same year, later appearing on the album Highway 61 Revisited. It was an immediate success, eventually climbing to number two on the Billboard pop chart and number one on the Cashbox chart. The song was somewhat different from the top ten fare of the time, however. At a length of over six minutes (it was chopped for radio play) it was significantly longer than the two-and-a-half to 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 upon by commentators that the lyrics—at least on the surface—recount the privileged upbringing and subsequent fall into desperate poverty an unnamed "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 speech-like, highly rhythmic declamatory style. Dylan later described, in somewhat stylized terms, the genesis of the song (to Jules Siegel, quoted in Scaduto 1973:244-5):

I wrote it as soon...


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