The $10 Million Bob Dylan Center Reveals Its Songwriting Secrets
TULSA, Oklahoma – Visitors to the new Bob Dylan Center here will soon get, at the touch of a finger, what generations of the most avid dylanologists have only dreamed of: a step-by-step, word-by-word map of the way Dylan wrote a song.
In a room filled with artifacts like Dylan’s leather jacket from the 1965 Newport Folk Festival and a photograph of 16-year-old Bobby Zimmerman posing with a guitar at a Wisconsin Jewish summer camp, a digital display lets visitors to browse 10 of 17 known drafts of Dylan’s enigmatic 1983 song “Jokerman.” The screen highlights the typed and handwritten changes Dylan made throughout the manuscripts, showing, for example, how the line “You, a son of angels / You, a man of clouds” in the first iteration of the song was modified, little by little, to end. like “You are a mountain man, you can walk on clouds.”
The ‘Jokerman’ exhibit is an example of how organizers of the $10 million Dylan Center – which opens on Tuesday, after a long weekend of inaugural events featuring Elvis Costello, Patti Smith and Mavis Staples – attempted to bring Dylan’s paper-heavy archive to life and attract newcomers and experts alike.
It also underscores the center’s larger goal of using Dylan’s extensive archive, with documents and artifacts from nearly his entire career, to inform the creative process itself. In addition to exhibits focused on Dylan’s work, the two-story, 29,000-square-foot facility will feature a rotating gallery showcasing the work of other creators. The first is Jerry Schatzberg, the filmmaker and photographer who shot the cover for Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde” album in 1966.
“We really hope that visitors come away feeling like they can tap into their own creative instincts, their own impulse for artistic expression, regardless of the medium,” Center Director Steven Jenkins said during a recent tour. .
The Dylan Center, located at one end of a century-old brick industrial building in downtown Tulsa – the Woody Guthrie Center, dedicated to Dylan’s first hero, is at the other – is the museum space founded to exhibit objects from the Bob Dylan Archive, which was acquired in 2016 by the George Kaiser Family Foundation and the University of Tulsa for approximately $20 million. (The Kaiser Foundation later bought out the university.)
The complete archive, with approximately 100,000 articles, is only accessible to accredited researchers. It includes huge amounts of paperwork as well as films, recordings, photographs, books, musical instruments and curiosities like matchbooks on which Dylan has scribbled a few words. (For fire safety reasons, the matchbooks are kept elsewhere.) Among the many highlights: a newly discovered 1961 film soundtrack and four typewritten drafts of “Tarantula,” the book of rambling prose poetry that Dylan wrote in the mid-60s.
The archive has already begun to reshape Dylan’s studies, a topic now fully embraced by academia, said Douglas Brinkley, a history professor at Rice University who, along with his wife, Anne, is a donor and advisor to the Dylan. Center.
“It has now become a legitimized field of study,” Brinkley said. “Anywhere in the United States, if you’re an English teacher or a history teacher, you can offer to teach a class on Dylan and the academy will bless him.”
Characteristically, Dylan – fully active at 80, with a tour on the road and a new book coming out in the fall – has stubbornly avoided engaging in attempts to review his own work and has not had no involvement in the center that bears his name. , in addition to contributing one of its wrought iron gates for the entrance. (His business office in New York, however, was closely involved.) When he performed in Tulsa last month, at a theater a few blocks away, the Nobel laureate made no institution recognition in his honor about to open just downstairs. the street.
The challenge for the Dylan Center is to make the archive understandable to lay audiences while digging into its depths to appeal to Dylan’s most picky experts — the types who may be familiar with details like the spiral notebook’s murky provenance. red Dylan used for “Blood on the Tracks”, which is in the Morgan Library & Museum in New York.
One step was not to call the new facility a museum, but rather a “hub” that would encourage debate and accommodate multiple perspectives.
“I’m more interested in this as a living archive than a museum,” said Alan Maskin of Olson Kundig, the architecture and design firm behind the Dylan Center. “The museum involves a voice that everyone accepts as truth.”
Stunning interactive exhibits were another strategy. When the Dylan Archive deal was announced six years ago, it was revealed that in addition to Morgan’s notebook for “Blood on the Tracks”, the singer also kept two other spiral notebooks with d other notes for this album, unknown even to the most obsessed. students. The Dylan Center is showing the three of them together for the first time, thanks to a loan from the Morgan.
A digital display projects moving images of these newspapers onto an open book-like surface. The pages scroll by, in realistic motion, showing laborious draft after laborious draft of songs like “Tangled Up in Blue”, with key passages highlighted and explanatory context added. This feature film, and others, were conceived by 59 Productions, which also worked on the acclaimed exhibition “David Bowie Is”.
The Dylan Center also includes a digital jukebox with 162 songs chosen by Elvis Costello, and a mock studio that allows listeners to tinker with the original “stems” of Dylan’s recording – individual instrumental tracks or isolated vocals – from a few classic songs, including “Knockin’ on The Gates of Heaven.” The center’s artist-in-residence is Joy Harjo, a native of Tulsa and a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, who is America’s newest Poet Laureate.
Some items, like a gym bag filled with fan mail from 1966, have an immediate emotional impact. In letters from earlier this year, fans plead for photos and autographs as if Dylan were a pop idol. Recovery cards poured in after his motorcycle accident in July. A November letter from a soldier in Vietnam describes a young man hearing “Blowin’ in the Wind” on the radio while mourning three fallen friends in a “blood soaked country”.
Yet Dylan never read this correspondence. According to Mark A. Davidson, curator of the Dylan Archives, the bag had apparently remained untouched for years, and when archivists received it, no mail had been opened.
The center and the archives are already evolving. Exhibits like the jukebox will rotate between guest curators. And the Dylan archives kept growing. In 2016, he purchased Bruce Langhorne’s original tambourine, which inspired Dylan’s song “Mr. Tambourine Man.” More recently, he acquired extensive collections from Mitch Blank in New York and Bill Pagel, owner of two of Dylan’s childhood homes in Minnesota, as well as books and vinyl records from Harry Smith, the filmmaker and polymath. known for compiling the seminal “Anthology of American”. Folk music” (1952).
But the market values of the music archive have skyrocketed, in part because of Dylan’s own deal. Davidson said many well-known musicians have offered to sell their collections, saying, “We want Bob Dylan’s money.” Jenkins, the center’s director, said while the Kaiser foundation covers about half of its $10 million opening cost – the rest was raised from donors – the institution will seek to establish sufficient revenue streams. to become financially “self-sufficient”.
In the six years since the acquisition of the Dylan Archives, Tulsa’s local and national profile has changed, driven by widespread awareness of the 1921 Greenwood Massacre, in which a white mob destroyed a thriving black community and killed up to 300 people.
A century later, Tulsa is still heeding that history, and the Dylan Center — just blocks from the Greenwood neighborhood — hasn’t been spared the process. When the center was designed, it was planned for what was then known as Brady Street, which was named after WT Brady, a Ku Klux Klan member involved in the Greenwood Massacre. In 2019 Brady Street was renamed Reconciliation Way.
To some extent, Greenwood’s legacy has forced the organizers of the Dylan and Guthrie Centers to consider what role they can or should play in the town’s healing. Recently, the two institutions participated in “Fire in Little Africa,” a multimedia project in which Oklahoma rappers recorded at Brady’s former mansion.
Ken Levit, executive director of the Kaiser Foundation, described “Fire in Little Africa” as a sign of how the centers can serve as “engines of thought and creativity” on social issues in America. Supporters also point to Dylan’s early protest songs as a connection, although Dylan has spent most of his career confounding all attempts to use him or his music as a symbol for any cause.
Krystal Reyes, the city of Tulsa’s resilience manager, had a simpler explanation. Her work involves a range of social programs to support issues such as public health, equity and inclusion.
“Everyone should have an on-ramp to this job,” Reyes said. “And maybe for some people the on-ramp to this job is Dylan. And I think that’s pretty cool.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.