Shakespeare in the Alley

about the radio series


Shakespeare in the Alley: The Radio Series

a brief description

This is a series of one-hour radio shows available through the Public Radio Exchange (PRX.org). The shows present Bob Dylan as the contemporary American successor of Walt Whitman, Woody Guthrie and Allen Ginsberg as a democratic poet in opposition to the elite tradition represented best by the early T. S. Eliot. The writer/producer of this radio series, Dr. Bill King, has written and produced two earlier versions of this series and aired them on public radio with favorable local reception. This expanded series provides a new programming model for presenting humanities content on radio, reaching out to a wide audience including both those who already have an interest in Bob Dylan's work and those who love poetry and music but know little of this artist working in a medium not usually associated with poetry. This website is meant to provide supplementary material in the radio series.

airing history and reviews

This series in its present form was first aired in a shorter version in 2002 on KBUT in Crested Butte, Colorado with lots of good listener response. The 2007 edition, now up to 12 shows, was aired on our college station, KWSB in the spring of 2008 then on WETS in Johnson City, Tennessee in the fall of 2008. Here is the review by the director of WETS, Wayne Winkler:

"Shakespeare in the Alley" is an outstanding analysis of the poetry of Bob Dylan. WETS-FM ran the series as a lead-in to our fundraiser, which (perhaps not coincidentally) was our must successful drive ever. We have received more comments from this series than any we have run in recent memory. One listener wrote "This is EXACTLY the type of program public radio SHOULD carry." The commentary and examples bring new life to songs many of us have heard for decades, and provide an outstanding introduction to Dylan for younger listeners. We have had so many requests for a rebroadcast of the series that we plan to run it again prior to or during our spring fundraising campaign.

Wayne Winkler
WETS-FM, Johnson City, Tennessee


The Timeliness of the Project & Suitability of the Radio Medium

Since the 1997 release of Time Out of Mind, Dylan has emerged into a new period of creative output which has spawned several major critical books about his artistry, most notably Dylan's Vision of Sin by the acclaimed British literary critic Christopher Ricks, now at Boston University. But while books and essays are often helpful in deepening our understanding of Dylan's lyrics as poetry, the medium itself inhibits the treatment of his works as song, as poetry and music combined. Radio is the perfect medium for the treatment of Dylan's special art form. The release of Love and Theft (2001) and Modern Times (2006) has created a new trilogy which rivals the "big three" from the mid-sixties.

Overview of the subject

Dylan's "democratic poetry" reaches out to a wide and diverse American audience and has touched cultures all around the world. Covers of Dylan songs are found not only in French and German but in Hebrew, Wolof (a language of Senegal), Norwegian, Basque, Italian and more. The primary focus of "Shakespeare in the Alley" is the lyrics themselves, with a secondary focus on the musical performance as it contributes to the poetic effect. Biography, one way into poetry for many, is used occasionally. The published works by Dylan including liner notes to albums and Tarantula, a book of prose poems, are helpful in this way occasionally. At times Dylan's ventures into film such as Renaldo and Clara (1978) and Masked and Anonymous (2003) are referenced, and of course the historical context sometimes is important. One reason Dylan speaks to so many so deeply is found in the central theme of the quest to find or deny or destroy an identity (thus, in Peckinpah's 1973 film Pat Garret and Billy the Kid, Dylan plays a character whose name is "Alias, just Alias.") Sometimes we hear the voice of the distraught joker who cries, "There must be some way out of here," at other times the voice of the consoling thief who replies, "No reason to get excited." These and other masks that Dylan presents to us, like the masks of Greek tragedy, are more mirror than mask. As our world shrinks, as America becomes ever more multi-cultural, the question of "who am I?" becomes ever more pertinent. At what point does an "immigrant" become an "American"? Dylan's 1968 song "I Pity the Poor Immigrant," like so many others, penetrates to the heart of our national identity - or identity crisis.

The title of the series comes, of course, from the second verse of "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again"::

Well, Shakespeare, he's in the alley
With his pointed shoes and his bells,
Speaking to some French girl,
Who says she knows me well.
And I would send a message
To find out if she's talked,
But the post office has been stolen
And the mailbox is locked.
Oh, Mama, can this really be the end,
To be stuck inside of Mobile
With the Memphis blues again.

Each show examines some form Dylan likes to use (the ballad, the love song), some theme (the "monster myths" such as racism or the quest for salvation), but always reinforcing the central concept of Dylan's song as a democratic poetry drawing on and reaching out to a diverse audience from various cultures.

Writer/narrator/producer: Dr. William E. (Bill) King. Contact him at bking@western.edu.

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