Shakespeare in the Alley

Show One - Introduction



The text you find here does not always reflect exactly what the recorded show includes. Usually I have to cut out some of this to fit into one hour and sometimes I edit as I record. Still this is of some value as a reference.

Shakespeare in the alley.  That’s how I see Bob Dylan—and how he sees himself, i.e., as a poet.   
I’m your host for the next hour, Dr. Bill King, in this series of radio show called Shakespeare in the Alley.  I have studied and written about and done radio shows on Dylan since finishing the  first Ph.D. dissertation on Dylan at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1975.  Today’s show begins a series of thirteen one-hour long  radio essays exploring the poetry of Dylan’s lyrics.

 In this opening show I hope to give you a quick preview of the series and a taste of what radio can do to bring insight into Dylan as poet, because his poetry is not for the page but for  performance—and radio lets me quote the performance.  I intend this series for those already steeped in Dylan’s lyrics and for those who want to get to know the man and his work  better.  The companion web site will provide supplemental information for those who are interested.

I take my title for the series, Shakespeare in the Alley , from the opening line of that verse from “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” which opens the show.  That’s where we find Dylan in the opening scene in Pennebacker’s documentary Don’t Look Back—in the alley. Along with Allen Ginsberg, the Beat poet.  It’s the only overtly staged scene in this otherwise candid documentary which captures Dylan’s final acoustic tour, a tour of England in 1965. It’s the first music video, years before MTV is conceived.   Dylan stands in a London alley dropping poster boards with key words from the song “Subterranean Homesick Blues” scrawled on them: blessed, suckcess, candle, scandal, vandals, handles.  As it ends, the bearded Ginsberg and Dylan disappear down the alley.

 LAST VERSE OF “Subterannean Homesick Blues” from BABH
Ah get born, keep warm
Short pants, romance, learn to dance
Get dressed, get blessed
Try to be a success
Please her, please him, buy gifts
Don't steal, don't lift
Twenty years of schoolin'
And they put you on the day shift
Look out kid
They keep it all hid
Better jump down a manhole
Light yourself a candle
Don't wear sandals
Try to avoid the scandals
Don't wanna be a bum
You better chew gum
The pump don't work
'Cause the vandals took the handles

This is what a Shakespeare in the alley sounds like, what poetry from the streets sounds like.  It was the beginning of something new—and a return to something really old: the union of poetry and music.

But let me pause to respond to a question you may be asking, gentle listerner.  Is this comparison of Dylan to Shakespeare merely fatuous?   Consider this:  the original Shakespeare also worked in the entertainment field, creating poetry for performance.  Only later did the literary crowd begin to see that these lines written for performance on stage as great poetry.  Bootleg copies of Shakespeare’s plays began to appear in print even before more legitimate forms were published.  And all this happened again with Dylan in the 60s, but this time with popular music as the medium.  Instead of stage performances of Shakespeare plays being recreated from memory by actors, however, there were  recorded versions of Dylan songs not yet released, bootleg copies they came to be called.  These bootlegs took the form of records and tapes and then photo copies of a book called Tarantula.  Both Shakespeare and Dylan transformed the performance medium he chose to work in, creating poetry of a new kind, expanding audience expectation, and inspiring other writers to use the form for higher artistic purposes.

Yes, with Dylan poetry came to the stage, to the record, and to the radio.  He adopted the forms of folk music, of blues, of rock’n’roll, of country music.  He turned what used to be just enter­tain­ment into something far more artisitic.  The question I want to explore with you, gentle listener, is not the oft asked one, Is Dylan a poet?  That question is not in need of an answer.  Dylan himself made that clear in 1964 in the hilarious “I Shall Be Free #10” on Another Side of Bob Dylan.

Now they asked me to read a poem
At the sorority sister's home
I got knocked down and my head was swimmin'
I wound up with the Dean of Women
Yippee! I'm a poet, and I know it.
Hope I don't blow it.

That was 1964.  In 1965 Dylan said, “I live like a poet and I’ll die like a poet.”  Clearly he was seeing himself in a different way than most song writers—and was seen by his audience in a different way. 

So the question in my mind is not whether Dylan is a poet, but what kind of poet is he?   And how can we deepen our appreciation of it? And how does his poetry work? This series of radio shows and the companion web site at <dylanalley.org>  is devoted to just that.  So here at the outset of this journey, let me give the short answer to these questions and then expand on them in subsequent shows.   
First, what kind of poet?   The most obvious point here is that he is a poet who writes for performance, not for the page.  His songs, while they can be read on the page, are best experienced as performed.  That’s one reason I prefer radio as a medium for discussing Dylan’s poetry.  My quotes are the songs themselves, not just the words on the page. 
This change in medium from page to performance links to the second part of the answer: Bob Dylan is a democratic poet, not an elitist poet.  The elitist poet writes for the few, the initiated, the priviliged elite.  In Shakespeare’s time there were those who circulated their poems to an elite few, disdaining the crowds who stood in the pit to watch Shakespeare’s plays.  Dylan, as did Shakespeare in his plays, seeks to speak to a wide and diverse audience.  This is the kind of audience William Wordsworth and Samual Taylor Coleridge wanted when they decided to write in the language of the people and called their poems Lyrical Ballads.  It’s the kind of audience that Walt Whitman sought when he self-published Leaves of Grass.  The kind of audience Woody Guthrie sought with his songs and books.  The kind Allen Ginsberg sought when howling his poems in coffeehouses. 

Sometimes he reaches out to his audience with humorous word play and musical forms, as in this song on Another Side of Bob Dylan, released in 1964:

I don't want to fake you out,
Take or shake or forsake you out,
I ain't lookin' for you to feel like me,
See like me or be like me.
All I really want to do
Is, baby, be friends with you.

At other times he uses the 12-bar blues form to plead with his audience to see the sorrows of life.  We can hear that pea in “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” from the 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home:

Now the wintertime is coming,
The windows are filled with frost.
I went to tell everybody,
But I could not get across.
Well, I wanna be your lover, baby,
I don't wanna be your boss.
Don't say I never warned you
When your train gets lost.

Many of Dylan’s songs are filled with warnings about lost trains and windows filled with frost, but there are times when he is not so pessimistic.  After a long period of negativity, we find him accentuating the positive, as on this song from Planet Waves, released as he returned to the stage in 1974 after eight years of solitude:


Let the four winds blow
Around this old cabin door,
If I'm not too far off I think we did this once before.
There's more frost on the window glass
With each new tender kiss,
But it sure feels right
On a night like this.

What kind of poet is Bob Dylan?  A democratic poet, a poet who connects to an ever-growing and diverse audience, but one who is never satisfied to keep repeating what he has been doing, always restless to move on to the next phase of whatever life brings, one who knows that “he not busy being born is busy dying.” 


The second question I will be exploring is this: how can we deepen our appreciation of his poetry?  Most obviously by listening, not just hearing.   Some of us have heard Dylan songs so many times that they only evoke memories.  They serve to replay the past, and Dylan has never been about the past, or even the future.  But Dylan songs are about NOW, a word that echoes through that most famous Dylan song:  “Now you don’t feel so proud, now you don’t talk so loud, about having to be scrounging your next meal.  How does it feel to be on your own like a rolling stone.”   One way to begin to really listen to Dylan’s songs is by comparing songs on similar themes.  “Like a Rolling Stone” is not an isolated expression of the theme of the frightening experience of independence, it is one of many such explorations and by comparing it to “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Sugar Babe” and “Please Crawl Out Your Window” and many more we can deepen our appreciation of this artist who, like Shakespeare, chooses to write for a diverse audience, to work in a popular medium, a performance medium, an entertainment medium.  Yet his work has a depth and honesty not usually associated with such a form.  That’s why so many were blown away when they heard this song coming out of their radio or record player in 1965:

You've gone to the finest school all right, Miss Lonely
But you know you only used to get juiced in it
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
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
And ask him  do you want to make a deal?
How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

This song has been performed countless times by Dylan in live performances over the past four decades, usually as an encore.  The audience response suggests that there is an identification with both the speaker and with Miss Lonely.  It is a poem which reaches deep within us, we who have been juiced in school for so many years.  But more of that in later shows.

The third question I want to explore with you in this series is this: how does Dylan’s poetry work?  This is the hardest to give a short answer to, of course.  Let me make three brief points and then expand on these and others as the series unfolds.  One, Dylan is a master of rhyme, as we can see in the verse we just heard where he rhymes “used to it” and “juiced in it.” You can also see the power of this series of rhymes:  compromise/realize/alibis/vacuum of his eyes.  Christopher Ricks, the esteemed British literary critic and Oxford Professor of Poetry, has much to say about rhyme in his book Dylan’s Visions of Sin.  Xxx add from page 30 long/wrong rhyme in “Got My Mind Made Up.”  Allan Ginsberg, on the liner notes to Desire pointed to “the great disillusioned national rhyme “Idiot Wind”:  
Blowing like a circle round my skull
From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol.

This is a great example of the power of his rhyme, suggesting the link of the personal to the political, with an idiot wind blowing thorough it all.  This kind of pointing, as T. S. Eliot said, is the ultimate critical act.  That’s what I’ll be doing throughout the series of shows, point to some of the effects Dylan achieves in his performances of his songs.

Another key to Dylan’s poetic power is allusion.  His allusions range from folk tales and nursery rhymes to Plato and the French symbolists.  Recall the opening line of “Like a Rolling Stone”:   “Once upon a time….”   In the same song Dylan pulls one line straight from a TV game show:  “Do you want to make a deal?”   If you know Plato’s allegory of the cave, you may hear an allusion in that wonderful line where he tells the Tambourine Man, “It’s just a shadow you’re seeing that he’s chasing.” 

A third, and final response to the question of how Dylan’s poetry works is imagery, but imagery with a difference.  Dylan has been praised for his strings of “flashing images,” but I will contrast the effect of his images with the traditional concept of imagery as words which appeal to the five senses, words that make us see or hear or taste or touch or smell.  Listen to this verse from “A Hard Rain’s A-gonna Fall,” a song which is every organized by a series of questions about the sense, with the mother asking the blue eyed son, What did you see? What did you hear?  This is the second verse:

Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it,
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it,
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin',
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin',
I saw a white ladder all covered with water,
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken,
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children,
And it's a hard, and it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard,
And it's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.


When Shakespeare evokes old age by comparing it to the bare branches of autumn trees, stripped of leaves,  or in his words, “bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang,” we tend not only to see the image but  perhaps even hear the whistling of the wind through them, replacing the song of departed birds.  When John Keats speaks of bursting “joy’s grape on our palette fine” he appeals to several of our senses, asking each of us to imagine pushing with our tongue until that imaginary grape explodes, pouring juices down our throat.  When Ezra Pound writes the words “Petals on a wet, black bough,” he wants us to see those petals.  But when Dylan sings “I saw a white ladder all covered with water” or “I saw a white man who walked a black dog” he does not evoke a visual image so much as a concept.   When he tells Baby Blue, “The carpet too is moving under you,” we don’t so much see an image as conceive of the double word play:  Baby Blue feeling the excitement of being on a moving carpet—a magic carpet—but also feeling disoriented as if the rug is being pulled out from under her.  This “image” comes just before the final verse of the song.  Listen to it and notice how this kind of imagery makes you think more than see or hear:

FINAL VERSE of “Baby Blue” on BABH
Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you.
Forget the dead you've left, they will not follow you.
The vagabond who's rapping at your door
Is standing in the clothes that you once wore.
Strike another match, go start anew
And it's all over now, Baby Blue.

So much for the short answers.  We have much to talk about and much to reminisce in this series about this modern American Shakespeare in the Alley.  While his fame grows out of his work in the 60s, he is still a creative artist now, a we hear the same themes running throughout his 40 plus years of writing.  Let’s examine a couple of these recurring themes.

Dylan is now well into his fifth decade of song writing.  This 20th century poet is still alive and kicking in the 21st century. Unlike so many poets and musicians of the mid-twentieth century, he refused to enhance his image by dying.  He is still making great poetry in the 21st century—and still not looking back but looking for the place where somethin’ is goin’ on, as he makes clear in “Summer Days” on his 2001 album Love and Theft:


Summer days, summer nights are gone
Summer days and summer nights are gone
I know a place where there's still somethin' going on    

That “something” which goes on is his creation of powerful poetry, a democratic poetry heard on the streets, in the cars, from the stereo as well as the stage.  Poetry that speaks to in universal images about universal themes, themes which recur through the previous four decades of Dylan’s work.  While Dylan is famous for his many changes in lyrical and musical style, those underlying themes remain the same.  For example, the theme of being “stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again,” a 1966 song, becomes “There must be some way out of here” in the 1968 “All Along the Watchtower” and on Blood on the Tracks in 1975 we hear it in “Idiot Wind”:  “Well, I'm livin' in a foreign country but I'm bound to cross the line.”  In 1978 it comes out this way: 

Senor, senor, let's overturn these tables,
Disconnect these cables.
This place don't make sense to me no more.
Can you tell me what we're waiting for, senor?

Dylan’s ever the voice of the exile, the outcast, the alienated, the drifter, the joker, always searching for but never quite finding that perfect place, that perfect mate, or, as he says in one interview, “Salvation.”  He’s still there in the 1997 album which returned him to center stage, Time Out of Mind

First verse of “Not Dark Yet” on Time Out of Mind:
Shadows are falling and I been here all day
It's too hot to sleep and time is running away
Feel like my soul has turned into steel
I've still got the scars that the sun/son? didn't heal
There's not even room enough to be anywhere
It's not dark yet, but it's getting there

In 1965 we tended to put too narrow an interpretation of being “stuck inside of Mobile.”  With tunnel vision we tended to see the songs in terms that were more social than spiritual, more political than poetic.  But as the decades passed, we began to see that Dylan’s concerns from the beginning were more spiritual than social, more poetic than political,  more existential than economic.  The underlying feeling in “Not Dark Yet” is much the same as that in many earlier songs, that feeling of being stuck inside with not enough room to be anywhere.  He is speaking of the human condition, not the political condition.  It’s a feeling which has driven him and many others almost insane:

Now the bricks lay on Grand Street
Where the neon madmen climb.
They all fall there so perfectly,
It all seems so well timed.
An' here I sit so patiently             
Waiting to find out what price
You have to pay to get out of
Going through all these things twice.
Oh, Mama, can this really be the end,
To be stuck inside of Mobile
With the Memphis blues again.

This song, like so many of the others just quoted, expresses a bleak view of the human condition, but the expressing of it helps.  As U2’s Bono said in Rolling Stone, that popular music magazine named after a Dylan song, "His words have always had an almost biblical uprightness. No matter where you are in your life, there's a Dylan record that helps you map out the locale."  Dylan himself has never been so sure if it helps or not.   We hear this in the final verse of  “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”:

FINAL VERSE OF “It Takes a Lot to Laugh” on H61Revisted
Now the wintertime is coming,
The windows are filled with frost.
I went to tell everybody,
But I could not get across.
Well, I wanna be your lover, baby,
I don't wanna be your boss.
Don't say I never warned you
When your train gets lost.

We all have our train get lost, and Dylan helps us by expressing that feeling of lostness.  Just knowing we aren’t the only one feeling lost helps.   His songs touch a nerve in the universal psyche.   Dylan resisted being labeled the “spokesman of a generation” in the sixties because, like all great poets, he speaks not just about the present political posturing but about the universal human condition.  This is one major quality which places him in the category with Shakespeare.

Another major theme running throughout Dylan’s work is the need to think for yourself, to be yourself.  The need for authenticity, some have called it.  Like Shakespeare, he creates a dramatic situation to convey this universal theme.  We hear it in this 1964 plea “To Ramona,” one of his most powerful early songs, borrowing his tune from an old country song because its spoken to a southern gal one who has come north only to lose her sense of who she is:

Ramona, come closer,
Shut softly your watery eyes.
The pangs of your sadness
Shall pass as your senses will rise
The flowers of the city
Though breathlike, get deathlike at times.
And there's no use in tryin'
T' deal with the dyin',
Though I cannot explain that in lines.

               Your cracked country lips,
I still wish to kiss,
As to be under the strength of your skin.
Your magnetic movements
Still capture the minutes I'm in.
But it grieves my heart, love,
To see you tryin' to be a part of
A world that just don't exist.
It's all just a dream, babe,
A vacuum, a scheme, babe,
That sucks you into feelin' like this.

Dylan has always stood, in people’s mind, for  rebelliousness in some form or another:  “Do your own thing,” was one of the sayings in the 60s.  But he was looking deeper into the underlying issues.  Being yourself involves the scary step into freedom.  And there is a strong argument that freedom is really the last thing most of us really want.   Erich Fromm argued this in his examination of Nazi Germany.  In his book Escape from Freedom, he argues that most of us prefer the security of conformity to the risk which comes with freedom.   Dylan agrees with Fromm that freedom is the greatest challenge facing us; many of his songs attempt to coax or  to  push or to persuade us to face our freedom. “To Ramona” is one of those. 
There are many ways of avoiding it and Dylan, like T. S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, has known them all.  Prufrock, after contemplating asking “the overwhelming question,” finally does not.  Here is Eliot himself reading from his famous “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” as the middle-aged bachelor rationalizes for not having asked the overwhelming question:

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: "I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all"
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say, "That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all."

Prufrock fears rejection and so is unable to make decisions, to face freedom. He escapes freedom by trying to convince himself that it would not have been worth it, after all.   His monologue allows us to hear him and to judge him and then to ask ourselves “Am I like that?”  In  “To Ramona" we hear not Ramona speaking but the voice of one who calls for her to renounce her “escape from freedom” and face up to reality.  The song is addressed to a southerner who has come north to the city and escaped into a fast crowd of political protesters and doomsday hucksters.

THIRD VERSE of “To Ramona”:
I can see that your head
Has been twisted and fed
With worthless foam from the mouth.
I can tell you are torn
Between stayin' and returnin'
Back to the South.
You've been fooled into thinking
That the finishin' end is at hand.
Yet there's no one to beat you,
No one t' defeat you,
'Cept the thoughts of yourself feeling bad.

Others tell us what we need from their rational, or rationalized, viewpoint.  But what we must do, as he tells Ramona, is to feel the truth in our guts.  He’s telling us not to let people's games and images catch us up in a phony view of the world.  Almost sounds like Holden Cauldfield.

It’s easy to read the third verse as addressed to a specific young woman who has left the South and moved to Greenwich Village in the early sixties, who is now caught up in the political agendas of the time.  “I can see that your head has been twisted and fed with worthless foam from the mouth.” She has lost contact with her own identity.   But there is a larger context: the whole American dream of a democratic country where everyone is free and equal. 

In the 2001 Rolling Stone interview Dylay said this,  “Every one of the records I've made has emanated from the entire panorama of what America is to me. America, to me, is a rising tide that lifts all ships, and I've never really sought inspiration from other types of music.” 

Dylan explores the contra­dictory logic of some of our American ideals and ideas in the next verse of “To Ramona”.

I've heard you say many times
That you're better 'n no one
And no one is better 'n you.
If you really believe that,
You know you have
Nothing to win and nothing to lose.
From fixtures and forces and friends,
Your sorrow does stem,
That hype you and type you,
Making you feel
That you gotta be exactly like them.

This verse explores two issues central to a society based on individualism and equality.   In the first half, he explores a contradiction embedded in the concept of equality:  you say that you are no better than others, but if that’s so, what have you got to win or lose?  Equality of rights cannot be extended to equality of ideas.  In the second half of this verse Dylan uncovers the classic contradiction of American individualism—trying to find our own identity and individuality by becoming like others.  “I want to be different, like everybody else,” we say.  And Ramona’s sorrow stems from the hype of others who tell her that “you gotta be exactly like them.”

This song, released in 1964 on Another Side of Bob Dylan, quite early in Dylan’s career, reveals his ability to convey a complex theme through simple images and language and a dramatic situation, all accessible to a wide audience, the democratic audience which many artists have longed for.   

As we turn to the final verse of “To Ramona,” I want you to recall the opening verse in which the speaker comforts Ramona and tells her, "The pangs of your sadness/will pass as your senses will rise."  The verb “to pass” echoes the King James Bible, where repeatedly we hear the expression “and it came to pass.”  Dylan uses this verb  again in the final verse, contributing to the song's poetic unity.  In addition, this final verse gives us the paradox of words which help by saying that words can’t help. 

I'd forever talk to you,
But soon my words,
They would turn into a meaningless ring.
For deep in my heart
I know there is no help I can bring.
Everything passes,
Everything changes,
Just do what you think you should do.
And someday maybe,
Who knows, baby,
I'll come and be cryin' to you.

While this might at first seem to conflict with Dylan's giving advice, it actually reinforces his major point:  no one can make up your mind for you.  When it comes to being, in the existential sense of that basic verb, you are on your own—like a rolling stone.  The Spanish philosopher Ortega calls this the "great platitude,"  the perception of what he calls "radical reality.”  In his book Man and People, he puts it this way:

0We must each realize that life is untransferable and that each man has to live        his own; that no one can take over his task of living for him; . . . that no one can replace him or surrogate for him in feeling and wanting; that, finally, he cannot make his neighbor think for him the thoughts that he has to think in order to orient himself in the world . . . and thus find his right line of conduct—hence , that he must be convinced or not convinced, must see truths and see through nonsense, on
his own account, without any possible substitute, deputy, or proxy.

Or, to put it metaphorically, as Dylan does in the 2001 Rolling Stone interview,  the “truth is, it's my job to drive my own car, if you know what I mean.”    This leads Ortega to an inevitable conclusion that is at the heart of so many Dylan songs: “It follows, that since human life is in the strict sense untransferable, it is essentially solitude, radical solitude.”

Not only “To Ramona” but many Dylan songs focus on the desire to escape this radical solitude.  In “Visions of Johanna” Louise and her lover sit in their loft late at night.  The unnamed lover is the speaker:

Ain't it just like the night to play tricks when you're tryin' to be so quiet?
We sit here stranded, though we're all doin' our best to deny it
And Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin' you to defy it
Lights flicker from the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough
The country music station plays soft
But there's nothing, really nothing to turn off
Just Louise and her lover so entwined
And these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind

Dylan is portraying people who feel trapped in this radical solitude, unable to connect with one another or with that elusive and ethereal world of the ideal represented by Johanna.

Yet our sense of solitude, and even the acceptance of it which Dylan preaches, does not deny our need for others. It’s not Louise OR Johanna but Louise AND Johanna which the speaker wishes for.  Dylan’s song teaches acceptance of radical solitude AND the need to connect.  We hear it in the final verse of “Obviously Five Believers”:

Early in the mornin'
Early in the mornin'
I'm callin' you to
I'm callin' you to
Please come home
Yes, I could make it without you
If I just did not feel so all alone

Yes, “I could make it without you if I just didn’t feel so all alone.”   That struggle to escape aloneness is explored in many of Dylan’s songs besides  “To Ramona.”  One we will focus on next week is the haunting and famous “Just Like a Woman,” first released on Blonde on Blonde, the 1966 double album.

But before we end this week’s show by playing “To Ramona” all the way through, let me touch on an issue which will become an entire show later in the series.  It’s an issue which faces any Shakespeare in the alley, any democratic artist.  I mean the relationship of artist to audience.  Woody Guthrie tried to make this an intimate relationship by identifying himself with his audience, by keeping his education a secret,  by posing as  hobo, a “just folks” kind of guy.  It was for this reason that Guthrie’s songs frequently borrow their tunes and shape from earlier, traditional folk tunes.  He borrows the tune and verse form for his ballad “Jesus Christ” from a ballad that immortalizes Jesse James as a outlaw hero.  But Woody’s song is about a different kind of outlaw.
Dylan borrowed this technique of using traditional song melodies and forms and he borrowed Guthrie’s whole pose as commoner during his first years in Greenwich village.  In that early folk period his language and allusions were folksy.  “Hard Rain” picks up the form of  Child ballad  # 12, usually referred to as  “Lord Randal.”   In this old English ballad a mother asks her son a series of questions.   Her refrain is this:  “O where ha you been, Lord Randal, my son? And where ha you been, my handsome young man?”  His answers  gradually reveal to his mother and thus to us a story of deceit.   He says repeatedly “I ha been at the greenwood, mother, make my bed soon, for I’m weary wi huting, and faild wad lied down.”  The reason he is so weary, however, is the poison fed to him by his sweetheart.  Dylan’s use of this form in “A Hard Rain” produces a deeping for those who know the origin.


Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?
I've stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains,
I've walked and I've crawled on six crooked highways,
I've stepped in the middle of seven sad forests,
I've been out in front of a dozen dead oceans,
I've been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard,
And it's a hard, and it's a hard, it's a hard, and it's a hard,
And it's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.

Many of Dylan’s songs use specific sources like this, others  just borrow images.  In “Blowin’ in the Wind”  we hear echoes of old ballads and the Bible:  the white dove that sleeps in the sand, the cannon balls that fly, the mountains washed to the sea.  And the melodies are mostly borrowed with little or no alteration.  Wilfred Mellers, the British musicologist, says that Dylan’s first great original melody is “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which appears on Dylan’s fifth album.  And as for the pose of being “just folk,” certainly one of Guthrie’s trademarks, Dylan even includes that pose in “I Shall Be Free # 10” on the 1964 album Another Side of Bob Dylan:

I SHALL BE FREE NO. 10 (first verse)

I'm just average, common too
I'm just like him, the same as you
I'm everybody's brother and son
I ain't different from anyone
It ain't no use a-talking to me
It's just the same as talking to you.

Yet there is paradox here.  Obviously many find that listening to Dylan is more valuable than listening to just anyone.  He is saying that we each experience life from that central place of identity, from a radical solitude, but his act of writing and performing songs is, by its very nature, an attempt to  communicate to an audience.  But what kind of audience?  This relationship of artist to audience is complex for a democratic poet, one who seeks to speak not to a limited, elite audience but to a wide and diverse one.  I have used T. S. Eliot as the example of the elite artist.   His early poetry, especially that seminal poem The Waste Land which echoes through the twentieth century, influencing all the poets writing in the English language, excludes a wide audience by its extensive use of obscure allusion.  But Eliot underwent a radical change between 1922 when he published The Waste Land and 1933 when he lectured at Harvard.  In those lectures he sounds as if he almost regrets the effects of The Waste Land and is questioning the kind of relationship to audience which its form requires.  His Harvard audience was probably either shocked or amused, certainly bemused when they heard these words: "I myself should like an audience which could neither read nor write."  Even more surprising is his declaration that he aspires to "the condition of the music-hall comedian.”  He goes on to elaborate:
[The poet] should normally be glad to be able to feel that the entertainment or diversion is enjoyed by as large a number of people as possible.  When a poet deliberately restricts his public by his choice of writing style or of subject-matter, this is a special situation demanding explanation and extenuation, but I doubt whether this ever happens.  It is one thing to write in style which is already popular, and another to hope that one's writing may eventually become popular.  From one point of view the poet aspires to the condition of the music-hall comedian.  Being incapable of altering his wares to suit a prevailing taste, if there be any, he naturally desires a state of society in which they may become popular, and in which his own talents will be put to the best use.  He is accordingly vitally interested in the use of poetry.

In a later lecture Eliot uses the same startling image of the poet as music-hall comedian to make further comments on the relation of the artist to his audience:

Every poet would like, I fancy, to be able to think that he had some direct social utility.  By this...I do not mean that he should meddle with the tasks of the theologian, the preacher, the economist, the sociologist or anybody else; that he should do anything but write poetry, poetry not defined in terms of something else.  He would like to be something of  a popular entertainer, and to be able to think his own thoughts behind the tragic or comic mask.  He would like to convey the pleasures of poetry, not only to a larger audience, but to larger groups of people collectively; and the theatre is the best place in which to do it.  There might, one fancies, be some fulfillment in exciting this communal pleasure, to give an immediate compensation for the pains of turning blood into ink.  As things are, and as fundamentally they must always be, poetry is not a career, but a mug's game.  No honest poet can ever feel quite sure of the permanent value of what he has written: he may have wasted his time and messed up his life for nothing.  All the better, then, if he could have at least the satisfaction of having a part to play in society as worthy as that of the music-hall comedian.

This description of the kind of relationship which Eliot wants with his audience is spoken within a specific personal and historical context which must be kept in mind.  Eliot is at the point of committing himself to an experiment in the use of verse in theatre; that has to be justified.  He seems dissatisfied with the response to The Waste Land, with its effects on its audience, an audience restricted not only to those who can read but who are highly educated.  He is speaking to a Harvard audience during the midst of the depression, a time when the arts were frequently asked to justify themselves, explain their "use."  But after all this is taken into account certain important points about the function of art and the relationship of artist to audience seem to apply universally:

-first, the artist wants to feel useful to society;
-second, the artist requires a mask behind which to work;
-third, the artist’s work must be performed for people collectively if there is to be a communal pleasure;
-fourth, only the audience can establish the permanent value of the work;             
-finally, the artist should at least be entertaining, he should at least give pleasure to an audience.

Considering the forms open to him, Eliot chose the only one which would meet the requirements of being entertaining, giving collective pleasure, and providing a mask behind which he could work as a poet: the theatre.  Thirty years later, Dylan could be more successful at this by performing his poetry literally in the music hall.  By presenting his poetry as popular entertainment where there is no strong associations with "art," Dylan is able to deal more successfully with the problem facing the modern artist: an isolation from audience.  Dylan portrays that isolation in the penultimate verse of “Desolation Row,” using as examples the two chief practicioners of modern poetry in its most isolated form:

Praise be to Nero's Neptune
The Titanic sails at dawn
And everybody's shouting
"Which Side Are You On?"
And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot
Fighting in the captain's tower
While calypso singers laugh at them
And fishermen hold flowers
Between the windows of the sea
Where lovely mermaids flow
And nobody has to think too much
About Desolation Row

Dylan fights the separation by presenting himself as an entertainer, telling one interviewer, “I’m just a song and dance man.”  His performances give communal pleasure which are also useful to society.  Performing behind his Bob Dylan mask, he gives us poetry disguised as song.  Thus he begins as music-hall comedian, only gradually did his audience begin to recognize that he was primarily a poet. 

            Dylan arrived on the scene with a big advantage over his predecessors.   Unlike Walt Whitman,  Woody Guthrie, and Allan Ginsberg,  he had the opportunity to perform for audiences all over the world—plus, there was an established system for recording those performances and distributing the results.  When Whitman self-published his Leaves of Grass in the late 19th century he could hardly be expected to reach the large audience for which he longed.  When Woody came along in the ‘40s and ‘50s, the time was not right, politically or otherwise.  There was no chance that “This Land is Your Land” would become a national song then.   The “Red Scare” interrupted the growing folk revival, postponing it until the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.  When Dylan arrived in Greenwich Village in 1961, the Kingston Trio and Joan Baez had paved the way.   Dylan’s emergence as a song writer who would transform the medium itself, like Shakespeare’s as a playwright who did the same for theater, was a result of genius arriving in the right place at the right time.  As with Whitman and Guthrie, so also with Allen Ginsberg, the central firgure in the Beatnik scene.  His most famous poem, “Howl,” begins with these words:  “I saw the best minds of my generation..xxx.  

Certainly the Beatniks had an impact on American culture, but it was not widespread until the changes of the 60s.  It did not reach beyond the a Beatnik subculture until after Dylan’s movement into the mainstream of popular music in the mid-sixties.   On the line notes to the  Desire album written December 1975, Ginsberg called Dylan’s songs  (quote) “ the culmination of Poetry-music as dreamt of in the 50s and early 60s.”  As Ginsberg implies, Dylan goes beyond the other democratic poets by melding music and words in a popular medium, thereby reaching a much wider and more diverse audience—while at the seame time connecting with them at a deep level. When Dylan arrived in New York City in 1961 both he and the situation were right.  Just as London was fertile ground for the genius who came up from Stratford-on-Avon as the 16th century was coming to an end, so Greenwich Village was for this 19 year old Minnesota boy who drifted in as the post-war era gave way to the youth culture produced by the baby boom.

John Hammond signed Dylan to a Columbia recording contract soon after his arrival in New York.   
This kind of opportunity plus genius is what made possible the creation of a real democratic poetry that speaks to and is heard by a large and diverse audience.  All these qualities are found in “To Ramona,” which Dylan performed to a live audience at the Philharmonic Hall in New York city in 1964.  He tells the packed house, “It’s Halloween and I’ve got my Bob Dylan mask on.”   Let’s listen now without interruption to this live performance.  Each of us, from our own radical solitude, can contemplate what was in 1964 a new kind of poetry by a democratic poet who perceives one of the central challenges of democracy: having to think for yourself.  @>


That 1964 recording of “To Ramona” is now available on Columbia’s official bootleg series, vol. 6, released in 1998.  The fact that it circulated in unofficial bootleg LPs and CDs for three decades before this official release illustrates how different Dylan’s environment is from that in which Woody Guthrie was working.  Dylan’s democratic poetry reaches a wide audience, one which began to pick up on the poetry of his lyrics early on, thus making possible his growth and development as an artist.  For the relationship of artist to audience is symbiotic: each feeds off the other, each helps the other to grow.  Dylan’s message to Ramona is meant for us all:  you have to face the freedom of radical solitude—but somehow speaking of it helps.  Dylan’s words do not, in fact, turn into a meaningless ring, not if we have ears to hear.  Encouraging that ability is the purpose of this series of radio shows. 

But our time is up.  I hope you will join me again next week when I look further into this idea of radical solitude and our attempt to escape it as explored in one of Dylan’s finest love songs, “Just Like a Woman.” It is a more complex exploration of the idea of escape from freedom because it’s not just the “she” spoken of but also the “I” who speaks that has to face radical solitude. So join me, please, next week, for another look at the work of this Shakespeare in the alley.  Until then, this is Bill King, who, like Dylan himself, is so glad you came around.

On a night like this
So glad you came around,
Hold on to me so tight
And heat up some coffee grounds.
We got much to talk about
And much to reminisce,
It sure is right
On a night like this.

 Let the four winds blow
Around this old cabin door,
If I'm not too far off I think we did this once before.
There's more frost on the window glass
With each new tender kiss,
But it sure feels right
On a night like this. 


Chapter one ofThe Artist in the Marketplace, my dissertation on Dylan's poetics, is online. Click on the title.

back to top

Mike Marqusee


© Shakespeare in the Alley, 2004. All Rights Reserved.
Website by Juliana Harrisking