Bob Dylan and Metonymy


by Larry Fyffe

Because this particular figure of speech is more open to interpretation than others, metonymy is often used in Post Modern poetry and song lyrics. Metonymy twists one term into another associated with it as when a part refers to the whole – ‘wheels’ for a car -, or the whole for a part – ‘law’ for one or police officers:

There’s this song verse:

She was thinkin’ ’bout her father, who she very rarely saw
Thinkin’ ’bout Rosemary, and thinkin’ about the law
But most of all, she was thinkin’ ’bout the Jack of Hearts
(Bob Dylan: Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts)

Charles Darwin is the missing link to the theory of evolution:

They got Charles Darwin trapped out there on Highway Five
Judge say to the High Sheriff
‘I want him dead or alive
Either way, I don’t care’
(Bob Dylan: High Water)

A double entendre word sounds similar to one considered vulgar:

I don’t need much, and it ain’t no lie
Ain’t runnin’ any race
Give to me my country pie
I won’t throw it up in anybody’s face
(Bob Dylan: Country Pie)

Brings to mind a play by William Shakespeare:

“Lady, shall I lie in your lap?”
‘No, my lord’
“I mean my head upon your lap”
‘Aye, my lord’
“Or did you think I meant country matters?”
(Hamlet, Act 3, sc. ii)

‘Crown of thorns’ recalls Jesus of the Christian Bible:

She walked up to be gracefully, and took my crown of thorns
“Come in”, she said
“I’ll give you shelter from the storm”
(Bob Dylan: Shelter From The Storm)

The literary reference to:

Then Pilate therefore took Jesus, and scourged him
And the soldiers platted a crown of thorns
And put it on his head
(John 19:1,2)

Disciple Judas betrays Jesus to the authorities; they condemn Christ to die of thirst on the cross. Judas represents anyone who befriends a person, and then double-crosses him:

For sixteen nights and days he raved
But on the seventeenth he burst
Into the arms of Judas Priest
Which is where he died of thirst
(Bob Dylan: Frankie Lee And Judas Priest)

The literary allusion is to:

And Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve
Went unto the chief priest to betray him unto them
(Mark 14:10)

A wheel connects to a vehicle such as as an automobile, or a chariot:

This wheel’s on fire
Rolling down the road
Best notify my next of kin
This wheel shall explode
(Bob Dylan/Richard Danko: This Wheel’s On Fire)

Relates biblically to:

And it came to pass as they still went on, and talked
That, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire
And parted them both asunder
And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven
(II Kings 2:11)

From out of trope hell, metonymies of all kinds break loose – flinging the doors of perception wide open:

Farewell, Angelina, the bells of the crown
Are being stolen by bandits, I must follow the sound
The triangle tingles, and the trumpets play slow
Farewell, Angelina, the sky is on fire, and I must go
(Bob Dylan: Farewell Angelina)

Suggests a ‘love triangle’; associates the sun with the whole sky; and even the sound of ‘the bells of the crown’ with that of ‘the balls of the clown.’

When the City of Washington is mentioned, politicians be thought of:

Thunder on the mountain, heavy as can be
Mean old twister bearing down on me
All the ladies of Washington scrambling to get out of town
Looks like something bad gonna happen, better roll your airplane down
(Bob Dylan: Thunder On The Mountain)

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  1. The magic is that you can understand a text in many ways.

    Farewell, Angelina, the bells of the crown
    Are being stolen by bandits, I must follow the sound
    The triangle tingles, and the trumpets play slow
    Farewell, Angelina, the sky is on fire, and I must go

    “The bells of the crown are being stolen by bandit , I must follow the sound.”
    Angelina (Joan Baez) is the Queen of folk music and he feels is just an atachment to her performings and opinions. He is the Jester (a hat with bells). In that period he changed music style from contry/folk to electric music. (he is following the sound)

    “The sky is on fire, and I must go”
    Could mean another strong love affair , new music OR/AND a change of his destiny that he is not master of. He uses the trumpets to illustrate the power. It is not only his decision, it is something he MUST do. Something that will change his life forever for good and for bad.

    It is about transition from a boy to a man. From freedom to obligations.

  2. Explantion in Disguise.

    I don´t know if “for good and for bad” is a Metonymy, but it surely gives me a lot of associations. I hope it will for you too.

    I wont reweal the whole story. It would be to cruel.

  3. And talking about “Crown of thorns”. What a big sacrifice “Mr. Tambourine Man” made the following years- until he could not any more turn down for the music and his genious thoughts. Another transition started. He says he made a few bad turns. I would say he only followed his destiny. It is not something you have to excuse. It is something you have to accept.

  4. Given a proper context, “for the good, and the bad and the ugly” might be considered a metonymy rather than a prepositional phrase as is, ” for good and for bad”.

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