Study Guide

Subterranean Homesick Blues Technique

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  • Music

    The music of "Subterranean Homesick Blues" can be discussed, oddly, mostly in terms of another song. "Subterranean Homesick Blues" owes much of its sound to the Chuck Berry song "Too Much Monkey Business." Like Berry's song, "Subterranean Homesick Blues" features rapid-fire lyrics spit out over the same blues harmonies and a similar twang of electric guitar licks.

    The first lines of "Too Much Monkey Business" are distinct not because of the lyrics themselves but because of how many words Berry crams into a single line. His style is something of a "talking blues" style (which, as the term suggests, consists of speaking over a blues progression). The rhythm is much more important than any idea of melody in this style. The melody of "Too Much Monkey Business" is then, in appropriate fashion, only a single note sung rhythmically like fast-talking. Dylan does the exact same thing in "Subterranean Homesick Blues." While Both Berry and Dylan do change the note they're singing to match the chords, what makes the vocals interesting is the speed and variation of the rhythm in which the words are sung. That fact has led some, like author and professor Camille Paglia, to point out how the "rhythmic ranting" of "Subterranean Homesick Blues" is a sort of bridge between modern-day rap and "agrarian 'talking blues.'"

    Again like "Too Much Monkey Business," "Subterranean Homesick Blues" is in, well, the blues. "The blues," in its most common form the "12-bar blues," is one of the staple progressions in American music, particularly early rock and jazz. The basic form of the blues begins on the root chord. In the case of "Subterranean Homesick Blues" that chord is A major. The blues continues on the root (or Roman numeral "I") chord for four measures before switching to the IV chord. In this case it is the D major. D major is played for two measures before coming back to the A major for another two measures. So far we've got eight of the twelve measures filled in. The last four measures are where musicians like to switch things up the most, but the general pattern involves jumping to the V chord (an E major here), descending to the IV chord (the D major), moving back to the A major, and then closing with another jump to the E major. That might sound complicated, but it's easy to play and easy to recognize.

    Dylan changes things up a little, in some ways simplifying things, but his song is definitely in the blues. "Subterranean Homesick Blues" is in cut time, which means that there are only two beats per measure (rather than four, as in "common time") so his blues really go over 24 measures. He also switches to the D major later, and does not choose to descend to the D major after playing the E major. Because the basic feeling of the blues exists in the jump from the A major to the D major, and then the jump from A major to the E major, we won't have any problems calling this the blues. That flexibility lends itself well to improvisation and (if a musician is so inclined) to showing off, which is why the blues have been so popular.

    Speaking of showmanship, those electric guitar licks in "Subterranean Homesick Blues" that lay in the lower realms of the mix during the verses come straight from (who else?) Chuck Berry. Berry introduced the world to such a thing as the "guitar lick" as we know it today. The twangy, high-pitched sound, with that characteristic string bending over a blues scale, is all Berry. Dylan owes him quite a bit—but then again, so does most every other practitioner of rock n' roll.

    Bob Dylan, who has always been fond of alluding to other musicians and artistic people in his music, should probably be seen here as paying homage to Berry, not ripping him off. As marked as the similarities are between Dylan's song and Berry's, Dylan carries Berry's concepts out on a much larger scope, blending Berry's blues with his own sense of political criticism and his familiar folk style harmonica riffs.

  • Title

    Many suspect that the title of "Subterranean Homesick Blues" refers to Jack Kerouac's 1958 novel, The Subterraneans. Jack Kerouac was one of the best-known and most popular writers of the so-called Beat Generation, a literary movement that emphasized emotional, visceral art while rejecting many traditional American values. Along with Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg is perhaps the most prominent of the Beats (his Howl can be heard here). Ginsberg was also a friend of Dylan's, and Ginsberg recalled that another of Kerouac's publications, the poetry collection Mexico City Blues, had impacted Dylan greatly. He remembers Dylan saying something along the lines of that "it [was] the first book of poetry which talked the American language to him."
  • Songwriting

    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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