Poetry that Got Dylan a Nobel
By Soumyadip Pal
One of my favourite singer-songwriters of all times – Bob Dylan – won the Nobel Prize for Literature, 2016. The announcement that came yesterday, perhaps, took many by surprise. For his many fans, this moment was of great rejoice, marking an honour that was due for years.
We have already enjoyed listening to his songs, sometimes on repeat playback. Perhaps there are more joys waiting to be discovered through an analysis of his song lyrics.
Let’s pick a timeless classic – Like a Rolling Stone. When Dylan first performed the song at Newport Folk Festival, his choice of a Fender electric over an accoustic guitar that was the norm then, birthed the genre of folk-rock. The handwritten lyrics of the song were auctioned for more than $2 million in 2014. Let’s see if we can get an analytical look at the magical rhyme.
The song has 409 words, and 187 unique words. A wordcloud of the song lyrics for words that appear at least three times, gives us the most common words – “feel”, “like”, “used”, “complete”, “home”, “direction”, “unknown”, “stone”, “rolling”, among others.
Three of the keywords – “feel”, “rolling”, and “stone” – seem to repeat frequently, and the repetitions contributes to the rhyme. Let’s take a look at the statistics for the three words: “feel” occurs 8 times, “rolling” and “stone” occur 4 times each. Perhaps they always occur jointly?
And can we see if the occurrences form a pattern?
Wow! Isn’t that pattern absolutely beautiful? The complete length of the lyrics is divided into twenty segments, and the frequencies of each word in the segments are plotted. The lines for “rolling” and “stone” overlap completely, indicating that the two words always appear a 2-gram. The “rolling stone” phrase always appears a little after “feel” and that pattern repeats throughout.
Sentiment analysis of the lyrics using Python NLTK gives us a ‘neutral’ sentiment. Throughout his career, Dylan wrote more songs with a ‘negative’ or ‘neutral’ sentiment than ones with a ‘positive’ sentiment.Like a Rolling Stone was released in 1965, when Dylan was 24. That year, more than half his songs had a ‘neutral’ sentiment while the others were ‘negative’.
Finally, I thought it would be interesting to see what the algorithms would summarise Dylan’s poetry as. Obviously, it isn’t as eloquent as Sara Danius, permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy described his work as – “An extraordinary example of his brilliant way of rhyming, putting together refrains, and his brilliant way of thinking.”
The computer summarised Like a Rolling Stone simply as:“Once upon a time you dressed so fine You threw the bums a dime in your prime , did n't you ? People ’d call , say , “ Beware doll , you ’re bound to fall ” You thought they were all kiddin ’ you You used to laugh about Now you do n’t talk so loud You ’ve gone to the finest school all right , Miss Lonely And nobody has ever taught you how to live on the street And now you find out you ’re gonna have to get used to it And ask him do you want to make a deal ?”
Soumyadip Pal is a retail analytics professional and a passionate educator with more than 8 years in the industry and more than 7 years in the academia, currently working as a consultant with Manipal Prolearn.