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Subterranean Homesick Blues

Subterranean Homesick Blues


by Bob Dylan


Bob Dylan has a deep (and sometimes-mocked) affinity for rhyme. Despite the ease of caricature that this rhyme obsession allows, Dylan should be considered a master of words because of his use of rhyme. While Dylan might not always be a poet, he has never failed to be a wordsmith. Considering "Subterranean Homesick Blues," rhyme is what stands out the most. Rhyme is part of what makes the lyric so memorable, because it aids Dylan as he puts together seemingly random information to create koans (a koan is a kind of paradoxical anecdote or maxim) and catch phrases. He may not have (nor may he have wanted to) craft a lyric that told a coherent story through the song. But on a line-by-line basis, "Subterranean Homesick Blues" provides some textbook examples of masterful rhyme, from basic rhyme to more complicated dealings in inner rhyme, slant rhyme, and feminine rhyme.

Almost every single line of "Subterranean Homesick Blues" rhymes. Rhymes are often simple, one syllable rhymes, like in "Walk on your tiptoes / Don't try 'No Doz.'" In some cases Dylan also uses slant rhyme. Slant rhymes are rhymes where either the end consonant or vowel sound matches, but not both. That is the case in the lines "Talkin' that the heat put / Plants in the bed but." There vowel sounds are close, but no match, while the final "t" sound is the same. Dylan was smart to choose two words that began with "p" and "b," which are known as bilabial stops. They feel the same as you pronounce them, the only difference is that "b" is voiced, meaning you let air through your vocal chords as you make the sound, whereas "p" is not voiced.

While there isn't a formal rhyme scheme in "Subterranean Homesick Blues," Dylan does sequences his rhymes to gain a sort of momentum in the song. What does that mean, exactly? Let's look at the second stanza. Matching letters to the left of the text mark each rhyme. Slant rhymes are counted as rhymes.

A Maggie comes fleet foot
A Face full of black soot
A Talkin' that the heat put
A Plants in the bed but
B The phone's tapped anyway
B Maggie says that many say
B They must bust in early May
B Orders from the D. A.
C Look out kid
C Don't matter what you did
D Walk on your tip toes
D Don't try "No Doz"
D Better stay away from those
D That carry around a fire hose
D Keep a clean nose
D Watch the plain clothes
E You don't need a weatherman
D To know which way the wind blows

Notice how the final line continues a rhyme that had been used six times before. This is characteristic of every verse. It is almost as if Dylan is picking up steam throughout the stanzas so that the last lines, which seem to be more quotable than the rest of the verses, stand out more.

The rhyming doesn't stop with end rhyme. Internal rhyme and assonance are also used in "Subterranean Homesick Blues." Internal rhyme is the rhyming of two or more words within a line. A good example from the fourth stanza is "Get dressed, get blessed," or how about "Try hard, get barred" from the third stanza? Assonance shows up in lines like "Please her, please him, buy gifts"; the vowels of "him" and "gifts" are identical. "Ah get born, keep warm" is another great example. The line is almost a perfect rhyme as well, as "n" and "m" are very closely related sounds.

Feminine Rhyme is an important feature in the song as well. Feminine rhyme is the rhyming of two final syllables as opposed to just one. Feminine rhyme is less common than the other rhyming techniques in the song (probably because it is more difficult) but the technique shows up at least once in each stanza. The second stanza has "anyway" and "many say" as a feminine rhyme, and "laid off" makes a feminine rhyme with "paid off." Feminine rhyme really becomes significant at the end of the song, with five of the last eight lines being feminine rhymes:

A Better jump down a manhole
A Light yourself a candle
A Don't wear sandals
A Try to avoid the scandals
B Don't wanna be a bum
B You better chew gum
C The pump don't work
A 'Cause the vandals took the handles

The sort of intensifying of the rhyme present at the end of each stanza is here magnified by the use of feminine rhyme. The final line includes some nice inner feminine rhyme too, between "vandals" and "handles." It is as if Dylan deliberately saved his best rhymes for last.

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