An eternal piece of music considered to be one of the most prominent songs of all time, “Like a Rolling Stone” is written and sung by American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan. Released in 1965, the song marked a strong shift in Dylan’s genre, from folk music to rock. The excellence of the song is due to how well it conveys its complexity, with many elements joining together to make quite the cohesive entity. Literally speaking, to be a “rolling stone” means to be unwilling to settle down in one place or with another person for an extended period of time, something Bob Dylan expresses his disdain for as he confronts the accused person in the narrative of the song.
Employing the different factors of a confrontational message, varying use of literary devices, placement of melodies and tones, and the inclusion of historical and social background in its meaning, Bob Dylan created something of remarkable depth and quality that consists of a perfect balance of complexity and simplicity. At first glance, this song appears to be portraying a division of different classes. The woman being addressed by the narrator clearly used to be a member of high society, having gone to the “finest schools,” and having “used to ride on a chrome horse with her diplomat,” vividly conveying the flashy, fortunate lifestyle she once lived (lines 15, 34). On the contrary, Dylan illustrates for the listener the “mystery tramp” and “Napoleon in rags” (lines 20, 50).
The dramatic shift in this song, at the level of the message, is simple: some incident happened in this woman’s life for her now to be scrounging for her next meal and to be living with no material possessions. But, this song also includes another level of complexity, in which the words are about illusion, deception, and understanding. The song repeatedly describes the actions the woman performed in which she failed to listen to the advice of those trying to help her and neglected to see what was really occurring in her surrounding environment. Dylan assesses her actions to make known how she feels about now being in poverty. The climactic line, of which the song revolves around, is an unanswerable question: “How does it feel? / To be…/ Like a rolling stone” (lines 10-14). The overarching theme of the entirety of the words lies in the position of the idea that sometimes the people who originally have everything they could need, and even more, finish with the least in the end, due to their negligence. It is also worth noting how quickly and finely Bob Dylan reveals this underlying message.
The first line summarizes the class issue and informs the listener of the harsh decline of the woman’s existence: “Once upon a time, you dressed so fine, / threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you” (lines 1-2). The second line then concludes just how ignorant the woman was to her surroundings: “People used to call and say, ‘Beware, doll, you’re bound to fall,’ / you thought they were all a’kidding you” (lines 3-4). Dylan is almost portraying the persona of someone saying “I told you so,” directly addressing an individual who had been unaware and unenlightened.