What’s in a Rhyme?

December 30, 2006

Beautiful sentiments can be expressed and beautiful songs can be written without the use of rhyme. But for me, if a lyric doesn’t have rhyme, it just doesn’t satisfy. I don’t know why a rhymed word will heighten the impact of a line but I became interested in taking a look at the use of rhyme by some classic singer/songwriters.

The most common type of rhyme is the “tail” or “terminal” rhyme. That’s when the rhymes fall in the very last syllable of the lines. This is the rhyme of nursery rhymes, the one you usually think of when you think of rhymes:

Hickory, dickory dock
The mouse ran up the clock


Rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,
She shall have music wherever she goes

Bob Dylan used a lot of tail rhymes in “Like a Rolling Stone”:

You said you’d never compromise
With the mystery tramp, but now you realize
He’s not selling any alibis
As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes

The rhymes above are “perfect” tail rhymes in that the final syllable of each line rhymes exactly. But some of the tail rhymes in “Like a Rolling Stone” rely on the fact that your ear will hear a rhyme if a strong enough vowel sound is repeated as in these lines:

To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

“Own” and “home” aren’t perfect rhymes but they share the same long “o” sound and it’s close enough for us to accept it as a rhyme and to have virtually the same impact as a perfect rhyme within the song.

Personally, I think Dylan got undue credit for mystic symbolism in some of his lyrics. It seems more likely that he was irresistibly drawn to cool rhymes of intriguing images. For example, I don’t think there is any great meaning to be uncovered in the much-discussed “Siamese cat” couplet:

You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat
Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat

In a cursory web search, I discovered an entire book written about this song and also four different interpretations for the identity of the diplomat on the chrome horse: John Lennon, Andy Warhol, Napoleon, and Dylan himself. (OK, so, actually, the Andy Warhol/Edie Sedgwick theory is pretty seductive. But I’m standing by my theory: Dylan was painting an interesting picture with rhymes, not telling a story or pointing a finger in cryptic images.)

I’m especially enamored of “internal” rhymes. That’s when the rhymed syllables don’t fall at the end of the lines. Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” is full of internal rhymes. In these, he rhymes two words, internally, within each of the lines:

He grabbed his pants a better stance, oh he jumped so high, he clicked his heels

He spoke with tears of fifteen years how his dog and he traveled about

He said I dance now at every chance in honky-tonks for drinks and tips

Some songwriters develop complicated rhyming schemes that they meticulously follow throughout an entire song. I once read an interview with Townes Van Zandt in which he talked about the complexity of his rhyme pattern in “For the Sake of the Song”. And it’s a doozie! In the first four lines of every verse, he uses two internal rhymes per line and a terminal rhyme. He also uses lots of patterned alliteration (repeating initial consonant sounds), especially S’s as in the title line, “Maybe she just has to sing for the sake of the song”:

Why does she sing her sad songs for me, I’m not the one
To tenderly bring her soft sympathy, I’ve just begun
To see my way clear and it’s plain if I stop I will fall
I can lay down a tear for her pain, just a tear and that’s all

And then, in the next two lines of the verses, he rhymes all four of the internal rhymes and still keeps the tail rhyme alive as well:

Does she really believe that some word of mine could relieve all of her pain
Can’t she see that she grieves just because she’s been blindly deceived by her shame

Um-mm, a perfectly conceived rhyme template is a thing of beauty! The anticipation and resolution of the rhymes is part of the aural aesthetics ~ rather like the repetition in a bird song ~ augmenting the pleasure and impact of the work as a whole.

Kelley Martin
December 2006


Tail (Terminal) Rhymes are underlined in BOLD ORANGE
Internal Rhymes are underlined in BOLD GREEN
Alliteration is underlined in BOLD PURPLE


Wikipedia entry for “Rhymes”

Lyrics to Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”

Lyrics to Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles”

Lyrics to Townes Van Zandt’s “For the Sake of the Song”