TULSA, Okla. – True to form, Bob Dylan was nowhere to be found as a construction crew put the finishing touches on his museum this month. The smell of fresh wood lingered in the air, the fire marshal was checking emergency sprinklers, and workers were setting up a jukebox with Dylan’s greatest hits – in place of the reclusive genius himself.
A new museum and archive dedicated to Dylan and his work is set to open in Tulsa this month, the culmination of a six-year journey that began when local banking and oil billionaire George Kaiser’s foundation purchased the voluminous Dylan’s personal archive and pledged to create a home for it.
When the center opens on Tuesday, the public will be able to view some of the more than 100,000 items from Dylan’s personal archive for the first time – including several draft songs, rare recordings and videos and historical artifacts including the beaten Turkish drum which inspired the classic song. “Mr. Tambourine Man. It promises a historic new look at the creative engine that has driven the singer’s 60-year career.
Organizers hope the 29,000-square-foot, $10 million center will become a cultural touchstone in Tulsa, giving fans and die-hard dylanologists a better understanding of the famously enigmatic and guarded musician, who at 80 is widely regarded as the country’s greatest living artist. .
“The reach of the material and its impact is almost unparalleled,” said Steven Jenkins, director of the Dylan Center. “But we have no intention of trying to explain the mystery of Bob Dylan. No matter how hard we try, the man at the heart of it all somehow continues to remain elusive.
Historian Douglas Brinkley, a patron of the centre, said it would provide a deeper understanding of the artist’s work at a time when there has been a resurgence of interest in Dylan, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 for creating “new poetic expressions in the great tradition of American song.
“The Nobel Prize woke up doubters – those who didn’t like Dylan’s voice or thought his artistry was only related to folk and rock ‘n’ roll – to realize that he was one of our greatest literary masters, a national treasure,” Brinkley said. mentioned. “He is one of those artists like Louis Armstrong, Hank Williams or Woody Guthrie who embody the best of the American spirit and who are loved around the world.”
A doorway into Dylan’s life
A mural of Dylan’s sullen face from a 1965 photo now hovers above Tulsa’s Arts District on the side of an old brick warehouse complex that also houses the museum of Guthrie, the singer Oklahoma folk who was Dylan’s first musical hero.
The foyer of the Dylan Center is marked by a playful doorway, a whirlwind of 16-foot scrap metal and mechanical tools that Dylan has welded and donated to the center – one of many non-musical works of art he has exhibited these last years. In a nod to the city that houses his museum, he used a salvaged piece of iron marked “Tulsa Oklahoma.”
In the main gallery, Dylan’s life is depicted chronologically on the walls with photos, reproduced concert posters and album covers illustrating his life – from his birth in 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota, to his current award-winning status. of the Nobel Prize, a traveling troubadour who is “Always on the road”, as the exhibit puts it. Listeners with audio guides can stop to hear key performances, such as during his 1966 European tour, when he scandalized some acoustic-loving fans by whipping out an electric guitar. Visitors can also listen to Dylan’s early influences such as Little Richard on listening stations or remix some of his famous tracks in a mock recording studio.
Six concrete pillars feature key Dylan works such as “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Like a Rolling Stone,” where fans can follow songwriting from the first spark to album release. A quote from Dylan in the entryway was the main inspiration for the project, according to Sean Wilentz, a biographer of Dylan who helped shape the bio wall.
It reads: “Life is not about finding yourself or finding anything. Life is about creating yourself and creating things.
The ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ exhibit shows how hard Dylan works on a song: rewriting the lyrics over and over again years after he first put down his pen and was discouraged by the failure of his first marriage. Viewers can listen to an early version so intimate and spare, it sounds like a diary entry.
And then there are the “Blood Notebooks”, which Archives Director Mark A. Davidson has called the “crown jewels of the collection”.
For decades, Dylan researchers have been trading rumors about the existence of a “little red notebook” with scribbled lyrics for the “Blood on the Tracks” album that few had ever seen. Rolling Stone dubbed him “the Maltese falcon of dylanology”. Believed to have been stolen from the singer decades ago, it eventually surfaced and went to the Morgan Library and Museum in New York.
When Dylan’s archive was purchased in 2016, Davidson said, researchers discovered two other small notebooks also containing draft lyrics from the 1975 album and persuaded the Morgan Library to send the red to Tulsa under high security. All three are now on display together for the first time.
“They show Dylan at an incredibly strong point in his songwriting career,” Davidson said. “He writes in these little pocket notebooks under the microscope, frantically. It’s as much kind of an unconscious brain dump as it gets.
A small reading nook completes the first floor, with books curated by Joy Harjo, the American poet laureate and Tulsa native who will be the center’s first artist-in-residence. Upstairs there is a private space for scholars and a public gallery for viewing key items from the archives, such as the famous “tambourine”, actually a Turkish drum.
Sean Latham, an English professor at the University of Tulsa who oversees the school’s Institute for Bob Dylan Studies, said his favorite item was an unopened bag of fan mail that had been moldy and forgotten for a while. years in the singer’s home in Woodstock, NY Latham and his graduate students opened and cataloged the letters, which were written in 1966 shortly after Dylan had a motorcycle accident and stopped touring for eight years .
“It’s a time capsule from a time when Dylan was one of the world’s most famous rock stars and an amazing look at what his fandom looked like at that pivotal moment,” Latham said.
His team found numerous letters smeared with tiny lipstick, half a century old, but also a poignant letter from a machine gunner in Vietnam who had lost three friends in combat. The soldier loved the song “Blowin’ in the Wind,” he wrote.
“We have been in this blood-soaked country for 5 months,” the soldier wrote. “I want to live so badly, just to see and touch my family and friends again.” Davidson is still trying to find the man and determine if he survived.
‘You have to remind me’
In September 2014, a tempting email arrived in the inbox of Ken Levit, the executive director of the George Kaiser Family Foundation of Tulsa, a low-key local billionaire philanthropy that had expanded its programs from education and from early childhood development to the arts and creation. public spaces.
The note was from a rare book dealer in New York that Levit had worked with when the foundation bought the Woody Guthrie archive from the folk singer’s surviving children in 2011 and brought it back to Oklahoma, not far from the city of Okemah, where Guthrie was born. .
“He said, ‘I have a set of documents for you of global significance – you need to call me back,'” Levit recalled. “I thought it was either the Beatles or Dylan.”
As Levit described it, Dylan and his team had seen how the foundation had built a museum and center in downtown Tulsa around Guthrie’s archives – thousands of scraps of paper, song notes, drawings and diaries. They hoped they could do the same for Dylan’s personal collection.
Dylan had been an early bandmate of Guthrie, who was a pioneer in American folk music. He memorized Guthrie’s songs in his youth. After moving to New York, Dylan often visited his icon in the hospital, where Guthrie was slowly dying of a degenerative nerve disease. Dylan would bring his guitar and sing Guthrie songs to him.
So despite his weak connection to Tulsa, Dylan said it made “very good sense” to sell his records to the foundation that built the Woody Guthrie Center when the $20 million deal was announced in 2016.
“There’s more vibes on the coasts, that’s for sure,” Dylan told Brinkley in an April 21 column for Vanity Fair, referring to his decision to choose Tulsa over more obvious choices such as his country. of origin or near his home in Malibu. “But I’m from Minnesota and I love the laid-back buzz of the heartland.”
Civic leaders hope the Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie Centers will fuel an ongoing cultural renaissance in a metropolitan area of one million, with side-by-side archives transforming Tulsa into an emerging center for the study of American music. The state historical society plans to open a museum dedicated to Oklahoma pop culture and country music next year.
And a local business executive, Teresa Knox, recently restored the historic Church Studio, a recording studio once owned by country son and musician Leon Russell, where Tom Petty signed his first recording contract. Blues musician Taj Mahal and Celtic punk band Dropkick Murphys are among the contemporary artists who have dropped by to record. “Tulsa has always been a crossroads; now it’s going to be a crossroads for American culture,” Brinkley said.