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If you haven’t already read my first post about my Literature and Linguistics class studying Bob Dylan’s imperfect rhymes, this post will make no sense to you.  I know that Alex from Michigan, at least, is reading.  This one’s for you, Alex.

Update: Friday 9/12: It turns out that Professor Hanson doesn’t really know why Bob Dylan uses imperfect rhymes, but we did pick up a few stylistic effects his imperfect rhymes have.  First of all, there’s a pattern in his imperfect rhymes.  They almost always end with a [d], [t], or [s], but the vowel sound stays constant (thus in “Blowin’ In the Wind”, “man”/”sand”/”banned” becomes [maen]/[saend]/[baend]).  This creates a feeling of cohesion but unsettling imperfection, often related to the subject matter of the verse.  Conversely, in all the songs we studied (“Blowin In the Wind”, “Masters of War”, “The Times They Are A-Changin'”), Dylan is careful to use perfect rhyme in the final verse to create a sense of finality and conclusion — see the final verse example below.  Then again, looking past the literary and linguistic analysis, it’s just some beautiful poetry.

How many years can a mountain exist

Before it’s washed to the sea?

Yes, and how many years can some people exist

Before they’re allowed to be free?

Yes, and how many times can a man turn his head

Pretending he just doesn’t see?

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind

The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

Bob Dylan

Fact: Bob Dylan won a Pulitzer Prize this year for “profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.”

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One of my classes this semester is English 179, Literature And Linguistics.  Today we examined the work of Bob Dylan and the linguistic pattern choices he makes in his lyrics.

In “Blowin’ In The Wind”, his rhymes are often not perfect rhymes; he includes a [d] sound at the end of some lines and not others:

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
Yes, ‘n’ how many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, ‘n’ how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they’re forever banned?

“Man”, “sand”, and “banned” don’t really rhyme.  They have the same [ae] sound but the endings are quite different.  Dylan definitely knew this; why did he sometimes include the extra [d], sometimes emphasizing it (“banned”) and sometimes dropping it (“san(d)”)?

My professor seems to be suggesting that emphasizing or dropping the sounds makes certain words stand out more in Dylan’s message.  I could go into lots more detail, but do you think the theory is reasonable?  Or are we just reading too much into it?

Update: Wednesday 9/10: Professor Hanson dithered around a bit more about “The Times They Are A-Changin'”, but right when we were about to get to the really exciting point where she reveals what the heck the purpose behind imperfect rhymes are, she decided to tell us on Friday.  This is just like watching a TV drama where they keep luring you back with “Next week, on The Hills…”