Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" is the greatest simile in rock 'n' roll
Tyler Flory is a teacher at Main Street School of Performing Arts in Hopkins. His Music Class column ties together his job and his music fandom in a neat little package.
"I believe [Bob Dylan's] 'Like a Rolling Stone' is the greatest rock and roll simile of all time," I state to my 4th block 9th Grade English class at Main Street School of Performing Arts.
"True. Very true," one student says.
"Amen," proclaims another.
The quest to find the greatest rock 'n' roll simile of all time is essential to me. As an English teacher, I have to teach literary terms and I am fortunate enough to have students with a solid understanding of the arts. This allows me to bring music, film, and dance into the classroom on a regular basis.
As I play the song in for my class, I look around the room and everyone is in deep concentration. They want to figure out what was going on. All of my students have some understanding of who Bob Dylan is, but most had never delved into any of his songs like we were about to. I tell them to listen, I push play, and by the end of this six-minute rambler students were dancing and grooving in their chairs.
Deconstructing Dylan is challenging, but we aren't going full tilt yet. I ask my students to find elements of the song that they could apply their literary terms notes to. It's helpful that there is a simile right in the title.
"Does anyone see any literary terms in the first stanza?" I ask.
"Right away there is exposition."
"Great! Dylan uses the classic 'Once upon a time' to open. 'Once upon a time' is almost always exposition," I affirm.
I then restated the first two lines "Once upon a time, you dressed so fine/you threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn't you?" and asked "What's going on here?"
"Rhyming" one student says.
"What else?" and the room becomes quiet with the rustling of papers. "You are right with rhyming, but there is also internal rhyming, which means having two words that rhyme within the same line 'dime' and 'prime.' There's also a slant rhyme. That's when two words almost rhyme. 'Time' and 'fine.' Dylan gets this line across so quickly our ears don't really care because they sound like a rhyme." This new piece of information is jotted down in their notebooks.
This is why I love using Dylan. We're two lines in and there's already a ton going on. We pick through the rest of the stanza and move on to the second verse. There is muffled laughter as we figure out what it means when Miss Lonely used to get juiced at her old school. We also took some stabs at figuring out who the mystery tramp is (some guesses were a drug dealer or evil personified, I like the idea of the devil myself), but we concede that we won't ever really know.
We finished analyzing the song and I ask, "What's really going on here?"
"She's a rich brat," says one.
"She's a fool," says another.
"She's getting a taste of her own medicine," states a third.
"Excellent," I affirm. My class figured out this classic rather quickly and (I believe) they've had a bit of fun doing it. We analyze with an element of seriousness to it, because we're doing real English work, but we've jammed out too.
Because of the makeup of the school, I can bring music into the classroom and have students who just "get it." They are able to approach music with open ears. There are a handful of students in my classes who will go home and listen to Blonde on Blonde, or Blood on the Tracks, but when most of them plug in their iPods they are not listening to '60s folk icons. Even so, I don't get any backlash from playing this oldie in class. In fact, the students are excited about it. As I passed out the lyric sheet one student says "I've tried to figure this song out before, but I never could." My students want to build their English skills, but they also have a desire to expand their musical horizons.
There's only one more thing I need to cover.
"Is there a bridge to this song?"
"No," says a music major in the corner.
"Do the chords change from the verse to the chorus?"
"Not really," he says again.
"Right! The only thing that really changes is how fast he's singing the words!" There is a slight buzz in the room. We've moved away from looking only at the words to examining the piece as a whole. I can actually see students start thinking about the musical aspects. I then ask my last question.
"What is this song like?" Its a loaded question. There are many correct answers, but I'm looking for just one. There's some talking to neighbors, and eyes glance at friends across the room.
"Sad," says a girl in the back.
"Yes," I say, "but what else?"
"Gloomy" says another.
"Good, but what I'm looking for is right on your page, it's right in front of your eyes."
Wait time. Gears are turning. A light bulb is turned on above the music major's head.
"It's literally like a rolling stone!" he says.
"Yes!" I announce, "It starts with the snap of the snare drum and the organ buzzing in the first few seconds and it essentially drones on until it fades out. It's just like a literal rolling stone. It goes on and on. Does that make sense?" And I see everyone get it. Their concentration for the last twenty minutes is rewarded.
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