The $10 Million Bob Dylan Center Reveals His Songwriting Secrets

TULSA, Okla. – 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 how Dylan write 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 cryptic 1983 song”jokerman.” The screen highlights the typed and handwritten changes Dylan made throughout the manuscripts, showing, for example, how the line “Thou, a son of the angels / Thou, a man of the clouds” in the first iteration of the song has been changed, little by little, to to finish 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 broader goal of using Dylan’s extensive archive, with documents and artifacts from nearly his entire career, to illuminate 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 Schatzbergthe filmmaker and photographer who shot the cover for Dylan’s 1966 album “Blonde on Blonde.”

“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 to the other – is the museum space founded to display objects from the Bob Dylan Archives, which were acquired in 2016 by the George Kaiser Family Foundation and the University of Tulsa for approximately 20 millions of dollars. (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 come out in the fall – stubbornly avoided engaging in attempts to scrutinize his own work and had no involvement with the center that bears his name, other than contributing one of his ironwork 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 Prize Winner made no acknowledgment of the institution in his honor about to open just down the street.

The challenge for the Dylan Center is to make the archive understandable to lay audiences while digging into its depths to please even the most fastidious Dylan experts — the types who may be familiar with details like the murky provenance of the red spiral notebook 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, and others, were designed by 59 Productions, who also worked on the famous “David Bowie is” exposure.

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 Dylan’s original recording “stems” – individual instrumental tracks or isolated vocals – of a few songs. classics, including “Knockin’ on The Gates of Heaven.” The center’s artist-in-residence is Joy Harjoa Tulsa native and member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, who is the newest poet laureate of the United States.

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, she bought the original tambourine from Bruce Langhornewhich inspired Dylan’s song “Mr. Tambourine Man. More recently, he has acquired extensive collections from Mitch Blank in New York and Bill Pagel, who owns two of Dylan’s childhood homes in Minnesota, as well as books and vinyl records by Harry Smith, the filmmaker and polymath best known for compiling the “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 that while the Kaiser foundation covers about half of its $10 million opening fee – 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 Dylan Archive acquisition, Tulsa’s local and national profile has changed, driven by a broad awareness of the 1921 Greenwood Massacrein 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 Path of reconciliation.

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 Africaa 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.

Kristi Eaton contributed reporting from Tulsa.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.