Opening in Tulsa: The Bob Dylan Center

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TULSA — True to form, Bob Dylan was nowhere to be found as a construction crew put the finishing touches on his museum this week. The smell of fresh wood lingered in the air, the fire marshal was checking the emergency sprinklers and the 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 bank and oil billionaire George Kaiser’s foundation purchased the Dylan’s voluminous personal archive and have 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 in Dylan’s personal archive for the first time – including several draft songs, rare recordings and videos, and historical artifacts such as the Turkish drum beat 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 largely considered 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, patron of the centre, said it will provide a deeper understanding of the artists’ 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 caused doubters – those who didn’t like Dylan’s voice or thought his artistry was only related to folk and rock and roll – to wake up and realize he was the ‘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 mural of Dylan’s sullen face from a 1965 photo now rises above Tulsa’s Arts District, on the side of an old brick warehouse complex that also houses the museum by Woody Guthrie, the Oklahoma folksinger 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 status current Nobel laureate, 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 at 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 entry was the main inspiration for the project, according to Sean Wilentz, a biographer of Dylan who helped shape the organic 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 crestfallen 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 scholars have been trading rumors about the existence of a “little red notebook” with scribbled lyrics for the album.Blood on the tracks” that few had ever seen. rolling stone nicknamed him “the Maltese falcon of dylanology”. Believed to have been stolen from the singer decades ago, it eventually resurfaced and made its way to the Morgan Library and Museum At New York.

When Dylan’s archives were purchased in 2016, Davidson said, researchers discovered two other small notebooks which also contained draft lyrics from the 1975 album and persuaded the Morgan Library to send the red to Tulsa under tight 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 have been open and catalog 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.

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 the creation of public spaces.

The note was from a rare book dealer in New York with whom Levit had worked when the foundation bought Woody Guthrie’s archive of the folk singer’s surviving children in 2011 and brought them back to Oklahoma, not far from the town 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 all of 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 struck. announcement in 2016.

“There’s more vibration on the ribs, that’s for sure,” Dylan told Brinkley in a column from April 21 for Vanity Fair, referring to his decision to choose Tulsa over more obvious choices such as his home state 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 workshop, 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.

When Dylan came to Tulsa for a gig last month, he didn’t visit the center set up in his honor, though his longtime bassist Tony Garnier did stop by.

Nostalgia is “not his thing,” Brinkley said. (The Bob Dylan Center was scheduled to open with concerts by longtime friends and collaborators Patti Smith and Elvis Costello this weekend.)

Passionate about baseball, Dylan rather did time to quietly attend the season opener of the Tulsa Drillers, the city’s minor league baseball team, according to Brinkley. The following night he hung a Drillers pennant on his piano before sitting down to play.

The stage was almost bare except for the upright piano facing the audience and two bright lamps. Alongside VIP guests such as Olivia Harrison, wife of the late Beatle George Harrison, many locals who worked at the Dylan Center watched with close attention. Those in the nearest seats could only see a lock of her curly hair sticking up above the instrument.

“It was that disembodied voice of age and experience acting like an oracle behind those lights on stage, Latham said. “I loved it.

Dylan, who turns 81 this month, finished with a haunting performance of “Every Grain of Sand”, his 1981 song about a man struggling with faith and mortality: “Further in my journey, I come to understand… that every hair is counted, like every grain of sand.

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