TULSA, Okla. — Visitors to the new Bob Dylan Center here will soon get, with the tap of a finger, what generations of the most avid Dylanologists have only dreamed of: a step-by-step, word-by-word map of how Dylan wrote a song.
In a room filled with artifacts such as Dylan’s leather jacket from the 1965 Newport Folk Festival and a photo of 16-year-old Bobby Zimmerman posing with a guitar at a Jewish summer camp in Wisconsin, a digital display takes visitors through 10 of the 17 known versions. of Dylan’s cryptic 1983 song “Jokerman.” The screen highlights typed and handwritten changes Dylan made to the manuscripts, showing, for example, how the line “You a son of the angels/You a man of the clouds” appears in the earliest iteration of the song bit by bit was modified to end up as “You’re a man of the mountains, you can walk on the clouds.”
The “Jokerman” exhibit exemplifies how the organizers of the $10 million Dylan Center—which opens Tuesday, after a long weekend of inaugural events featuring Elvis Costello, Patti Smith and Mavis Staples—have attempted to tackle the paper-heavy bring Dylan’s archives to life and entice newcomers and experts alike.
It also points to the greater purpose of the center to use Dylan’s vast archive, containing documents and artifacts from nearly his entire career, to illuminate the creative process itself. In addition to exhibits focused on Dylan’s work, the 29,000-square-foot, two-story facility will feature a rotating gallery showcasing the work of other creators. The first is Jerry Schatzberg, the filmmaker and photographer who made the cover of Dylan’s 1966 album ‘Blonde on Blonde’.
“We really hope that visitors walk away feeling that they can tap into their own creative instincts, their own impulse for artistic expression, in whatever medium,” said Steven Jenkins, the center’s director, on a recent tour. †
Located at one end of a century-old brick industrial building in downtown Tulsa — the Woody Guthrie Center, dedicated to Dylan’s early hero, is on the other — the Dylan Center is the museum-like space created to display items 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’s share.)
The complete archive, with approximately 100,000 items, is only available to certified researchers. It contains vast amounts of paperwork, as well as films, recordings, photographs, books, musical instruments and curiosities such as matchbooks on which Dylan scribbled a few words. (For fire safety reasons, the matchbooks are kept elsewhere.) Among the many highlights: a newly discovered 1961 movie soundtrack and four typewritten versions of “Tarantula,” the book of incoherent prose poetry written by Dylan in the mid-1960s.
The archive has already begun to reshape Dylan studies, a topic now fully embraced by academia, said Douglas Brinkley, the Rice University history professor who, along with his wife Anne, is a donor and advisor to the Dylan Center.
“It’s now become a legitimate field of study,” Brinkley said. “Anywhere in the United States, if you are an English or history professor, you can suggest teaching a lesson on Dylan and the academy will bless it.”
Significantly, Dylan — at 80 years of age, fully active, with an on-the-road tour and a new book due out in the fall — stubbornly avoided attempts to research his own work, and did not interfere with the center that his name, apart from contributing one of its ironwork gates to the entrance. (His New York office, however, has been heavily involved.) When he performed in Tulsa last month, at a theater just a few blocks away, the Nobel laureate made no mention of the institution honoring him who was about to die. to open. the street.
The challenge for the Dylan Center is to make the archive understandable to a lay audience while at the same time drawing the depths to please the pickiest Dylan experts – the types who might be well-versed in details like the obscure provenance of the red spiral notebook. that Dylan used for “Blood on the Tracks,” which is in New York’s Morgan Library & Museum.
One step was not to call the new facility a museum at all, but rather a “center” that would encourage debate and welcome multiple perspectives.
“I’m more interested in this as a living archive than a museum,” says Alan Maskin of Olson Kundig, the architecture and design firm behind the Dylan Center. “Museum implies a voice that everyone accepts as truth.”
Dazzling 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 had two other spiral blocks containing further notes for that album, even for the most obsessive of students. The Dylan Center shows them all three together for the first time, thanks to a loan from the Morgan.
A digital display projects animated images from those magazines onto an open book surface. The pages flip through, in realistic motion, showing concept after laborious design of songs like ‘Tangled Up in Blue’, with key passages highlighted and explanatory context added. That feature and others were: designed by 59 Productions, who also collaborated on the acclaimed “David Bowie Is” exhibition.
The Dylan Center also includes a digital jukebox with 162 songs chosen by Elvis Costello, and a mock studio where listeners can tinker with Dylan’s original recording “stems” – individual instrumental tracks or isolated vocals – of a few classic tracks, including “Knockin’ on De door of heaven.” The center’s artist in residence is Joy Harjo, a resident of Tulsa and a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, the United States’ most recent poet laureate.
Some items, like a fan mail duffel bag from 1966, have an immediate emotional impact. In letters from the beginning of the year, fans plead for photos and autographs as if Dylan were a pop idol. Get well cards poured in after his motorcycle accident in July. A November letter from a soldier in Vietnam describes a young man who hears “Blowin’ in the Wind” on the radio as he mourns three fallen friends in a “blood-soaked country”.
Yet Dylan never read this correspondence. According to Mark A. Davidson, the curator of the Dylan archive, the bag had apparently been left untouched for years, and when archivists received it, none of the mail had been opened.
The center and the archive are already under development. Exhibits such as the jukebox rotate under guest curators. And the Dylan Archive is steadily expanding. In 2016, it purchased Bruce Langhorne’s original tambourine, who performed Dylan’s song “Mr. Tambourine.” More recently, it has acquired extensive collections from Mitch Blank in New York and Bill Pagel, who owns two of Dylan’s childhood home in Minnesota, as well as books and LPs from Harry Smith, the filmmaker and scholar known for composing the groundbreaking “Anthology of American Folk Music” (1952).
But the market value for music archives has increased enormously, partly as a result of Dylan’s own deal. Davidson said many famous musicians have offered to sell their collections, saying, “We want Bob Dylan money.” Jenkins, the center’s director, said that while the Kaiser Foundation covered about half of its $10 million opening costs — the rest being raised by donors — the institution will seek to build enough sources of income to become financially “self-sufficient.”
In the six years since the Dylan archive was acquired, Tulsa’s local and national profile has changed, driven by a wide-ranging new awareness of the 1921 Greenwood massacre, in which a white mob destroyed a thriving black community and killed as many as 300 people. killed.
A century later, Tulsa still keeps that history in mind, and the Dylan Center—just a few blocks from the Greenwood neighborhood—has not been untouched by the process. When the center was established, it was planned for what was then known as Brady Street, which was named after WT Brady, a member of the Ku Klux Klan involved in the Greenwood massacre. In 2019, Brady Street was renamed Reconciliation Way.
To some extent, Greenwood’s legacy has forced organizers of the Dylan and Guthrie Centers to think about the role they can or should play in the city’s healing. Recently, both institutions were involved in “Fire in Little Africa,” a multimedia project that featured Oklahoma rappers recording in Brady’s former mansion.
Ken Levit, the executive director of the Kaiser Foundation, described “Fire in Little Africa” as a sign of how the centers can serve as “engines for reflection and creativity” on social issues in America. Supporters also point to Dylan’s early protest songs as a link, though Dylan has spent most of his career mumbling any attempt to use him or his music as a symbol for any purpose.
Krystal Reyes, the Chief Resilience Officer for the City of Tulsa, had a simpler explanation. Her work spans a range of social programs to support issues such as public health, equality and inclusion.
“Everyone should have a ramp to this job,” Reyes said. “And maybe for some people Dylan is the stepping stone to this job. And I think that’s pretty cool.”
Kristi Eaton contributed to reporting from Tulsa.