A three-storeyed museum in Oklahoma pays tribute to Bob Dylan

Its director tells us why, despite the 100,000 artefacts housed at the Bob Dylan Center, it is hard to define the Nobel laureate

By Mariella Radaelli

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Published: Thu 9 Jun 2022, 5:30 PM

Last updated: Fri 17 Jun 2022, 2:33 PM

Bob Dylan’s lines fly high and unfettered in the whole perspective of the songwriting of the West. A bona fide living genius born Robert Allen Zimmerman in 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota, crafted lyrics that shook history. His words are clear — music that has found a place to sit. And thus, a visit to the newly opened Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma — in the heart of Indian territory bona fide is a phenomenological, aesthetic and ritualistic experience. It is entering Bob Dylan’s temple. It is like penetrating insights into the temple of Mnemosyne or Mother of Muses, to cite one of his recent songs. You encounter the mysteries of the nine goddesses who had an extraordinary power relating to art, storytelling and memory.

The three-storey museum dedicated to the American singer-songwriter, Nobel laureate in Literature in 2016, houses a treasure trove of more than 100,000 artefacts spanning his long, still-active career. Dylan’s manuscripts, notebooks, previously unknown recordings, unreleased concert films, correspondence, drawings and pieces of clothing are permanent collections visible to the general public and scholars. The 29,000-square-foot cultural space features 16 rotating exhibits and a 5,000-square-foot archive.

The Bob Dylan Center opened to the public on May 10. Designed by the architect Alan Maskin, co-owner of Olson Kundig, and quartered in the Arts District, it is adjacent to the Woody Guthrie Center. They are both operated by the American Song Archives, a George Kaiser Family Foundation project, which acquired Dylan’s archives in 2016 and Guthrie’s in 2011.

The Smithsonian Magazine has included the Center on its global list of must-see museums in 2022.

“Whether you consider yourself a hardcore Dylanologist or perhaps a more casual fan or occasional listener, we hope you will be surprised, enlightened, and challenged. We hope you leave the Center with some answers and many fresh questions,” Steven Jenkins, the director of the Bob Dylan Center, tells Khaleej Times.

What is your goal for the Bob Dylan Center?

Our main goal is to present the voluminous material and artefacts contained in the Bob Dylan Archive in ways that do justice to the enormously complex and dynamic artist, who himself professes — in a song from the recent Rough and Rowdy Ways album— “I Contain Multitudes”. We do not wish to define Bob Dylan in any ‘one way’ or pretend that we have him all figured out, but rather suggest the many different versions of the man and artist. Dylan has always resisted anyone else’s definition of who he is or what he stands for. We want to honour that open-endedness and elusiveness by creating a variety of narratives and contexts around these artefacts, songs and performances. There is no single Bob Dylan. Thus, the Bob Dylan Center itself contains multitudes. We hope that visitors will consider Dylan as an exemplar of the creative impulse, as an artist who has fearlessly pursued his own vision without worrying about what others will think. Ideally, visitors will be inspired to tap into their own creative instincts, into that part of us that is eager to express inner feelings through one or many art forms.

What is the percentage of the items on display previously unseen?

Nearly all of the items were kept by Dylan for years or even decades and have never before been seen or exhibited. The collection spans from his earliest years up through 2016, when the George Kaiser Family Foundation acquired the Archive. Additional materials have been acquired, whether through sale or donation, by other collectors; most of these are also new to general audiences.

Some of the most fascinating artefacts are Dylan’s handwritten lyrics to songs such as Jokerman and Dignity. Never before have we seen Dylan’s writing and creative processes as we now do in these notebooks and on pieces of hotel stationery. Because he is so gifted and prolific, we tend to think that Dylan creates these amazing songs through some sort of alchemical process, as if they just spring fully formed from his mind and pen. But that’s not usually the case. Like any artist, Dylan works at his craft — writing and rewriting lyrics, crossing out lines, toying with alternative word choices, drastically rearranging and carefully finessing — and stays with songs until he has them just where he believes they need to be. These handwritten lyrics reveal an artist grappling with his own creative process, unafraid to find out where it’ll take him.

Of particular note are the so-called ‘Blood Notebooks ’— three small spiral-bound notebooks containing lyrics to many of the songs written and recorded for the 1975 album Blood on the Tracks. These notebooks were long rumoured to exist, but only one was known for sure, and it has been in the collection of the Morgan Library in New York for many years. When we acquired the Archives, we discovered two other notebooks from this same period and now have all three on display together for the first time. For listeners who have obsessed over the amazing songs on that album — such as Tangled Up in Blue, Simple Twist of Fate, and Shelter from the Storm —these notebooks are a revelation.

I also love to study letters that Dylan wrote to peers he admired, such as Jimi Hendrix, and letters to Dylan from musicians and friends, including Johnny Cash and Pete Seeger. You get a sense of Dylan as a friend, a confidant, a pen pal.

Are the collections organised chronologically?

The closest thing we have to a chronology is the Nine Eras exhibit. Sean Wilentz, a professor of American history at Princeton and a Dylan expert, has organised Dylan’s life and career into nine key eras, from his earliest years through Rough and Rowdy Ways and the Shadow Kingdom broadcast. Visitors can follow this expanded timeline, featuring multimedia presentations of Dylan’s life and career in chronological order, as they walk around the Columbia Records Gallery on the Center’s first floor. Or visitors can choose to go in reverse or from section to section according to their own interests and whims.

The Columbia Records Gallery also features the Six Songs exhibit. We have dug deep into the Archive to find materials that chart the writing, recording, producing, performance and afterlives of a half-dozen key Dylan compositions, including Chimes of Freedom, Like a Rolling Stone, The Man in Me, Not Dark Yet, Jokerman and Tangled Up in Blue.

The Center features a 55-seat screening room to enjoy Dylan’s recorded live concerts and films.

In the microcinema on the second floor, we will showcase all manner of moving-image arts. To begin with, we have a 45-minute programme of nine short films and videos that focus on Dylan at various points throughout his career, including never-before-seen footage of the Rolling Thunder Revue tour.

Could you explain the concept of the Church Studio Control Room? How does it work?

We want to give visitors a vivid sense of what it’s like to be in a recording studio, so this intimate space is set up for no more than four or five visitors at a time. They can play producer or engineer, turn knobs and push buttons and bring the studio to life with Dylan’s music and the stories behind the recordings of some of his most memorable songs, including Most of the Time and Like a Rolling Stone. We have used technology to separate these songs into what are known as stems — essentially, the different tracks and components that make up the song. So, you can turn a dial and isolate Al Kooper’s wonderful organ track on Like a Rolling Stone, or choose to emphasise Dylan’s vocals on a track like I Want You. I hope that some younger visitors will have fun with this interactive experience and realise they would like to pursue a career in producing or engineering.

Will the museum host temporary shows?

We are focusing on materials from the Dylan Archive but will also feature work of other artists in our Parker Brothers Creators Gallery, designed to showcase temporary exhibitions that tie in with our overall theme of restless creativity. Our first such exhibition is Jerry Schatzberg: 25th and Park, a retrospective of beautiful photographs Schatzberg took in his New York City studio in the 1960s. He and Dylan had a special rapport in the photography studio that comes out in very lively and humorous images. Some are pensive, like the slightly blurry portrait on the cover of Dylan’s wondrous 1966 album Blonde on Blonde. Schatzberg’s 1965 portrait of Dylan, titled Edenic Innocence, is featured in the exhibition and also adorns the façade of our building as a giant mural done in spray paint by the artist Erik Burke. Schatzberg also took photos of The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Aretha Franklin, Catherine Deneuve, and other musical and cultural luminaries. This exhibition will be on view through mid-October 2022, at which point we will introduce another temporary exhibition.

Will you collaborate with other museums, public spaces and universities?

We are very eager to collaborate with other arts and culture institutions in Tulsa, and build and share audiences among our various organisations. There’s so much going on here in the arts, in music, and, of course, this city has a rich though sometimes not very pretty history, with organisations such as Greenwood Rising reminding us of the Tulsa Race Massacre. It is important to acknowledge this, as is the fact that we are on Native American land and will, of course, draw from the incredibly rich pool of Native American artists here. We also will work closely with the University of Tulsa, which maintains the Institute for Bob Dylan Studies.

Beyond Tulsa, we will invite artists from all over the world to participate in public programmes such as concerts, exhibitions, readings, discussions, film screenings and interactive collaborations.

Will the Center create and promote opportunities for scholars and graduate students specialising in Dylan’s oeuvre?

The Bob Dylan Center will make the materials from the Bob Dylan Archive available to accredited scholars and researchers, who will be vetted by Dr. Mark Davidson, who holds the title of Director and Curator of the Bob Dylan Archive. We anticipate that many writers and academics will utilise the Archive for their research. That is a significant component of the Center and our mission.

Visitors entering the museum foyer admire a sculpture designed by Dylan. Is it an ad hoc creation for the Center, and what does it symbolise?

A 16-foot-high metalwork sculpture, designed and built by Bob Dylan at his Black Buffalo Artworks studio, graces the internal entrance of the Center. This imposing, dynamic structure features artfully arranged metalwork elements that are individually redolent of American industry and collectively assembled into a one-of-a-kind totem to abstraction. Significant yet mysterious, the sculpture is Dylan through and through.

Will the BDC establish a dialogue with Dylan the visual artist?

We are displaying a suite of pastels that Dylan created in 2012 — each one is a portrait of a friend — and we have his earliest known oil painting from 1968. We look forward to displaying other aspects of Dylan’s artistry across all mediums.

Dylan always showed a deep commitment to the word. As confirmed by the global recognition of the Nobel Prize, his songs don’t border literature, they are literature. They are American poetry in its uniqueness, even if Dylan does not belong to the American canon of poets. Yet, the literary world had a significant influence — he was friends with Beat poets, especially Allen Ginsberg. Does the BDC have a section on that?

We acknowledge Dylan’s connection to the Beats and, for example, have a copy of Ginsberg’s seminal collection Howl on display. We have many books of poetry by the Beats and other writers in our gift shop and in our Reading Alcove, a library-like area on the first floor where visitors can sit with a book and read more about Dylan and related figures. The Institute for Bob Dylan Studies at University of Tulsa is about to hold its annual conference. This year, the topic is ‘Dylan and the Beats’.

How does Dylan like the Center? When the idea of a museum in Tulsa came into focus, he said: “I’m glad that my archives, which have been collected all these years, have finally found a home and are to be included with the works of Woody Guthrie and especially alongside all the valuable artefacts from the Native American Nations. To me, it makes a lot of sense and it’s a great honour”. Any new comment from him?

Bob Dylan has not visited the Center, and while he knows that he has an open invitation to do so, we will not be surprised if he chooses not to pay us a visit. He has always espoused the philosophy of “don’t look back”. I think that for him, this would be an exercise in nostalgia, looking back at his life’s work. It’s more his nature to always look ahead, to be far more interested in the next concert, the next song, or the next painting than in something that he did 30, 40, 50 years ago.

He has given us his blessing to house the Archives here. I believe he trusts us to steward the collection and display its contents in a manner that is fitting to the man and artist. Still, he is not interested in participating in our daily operations or public programmes or making any decisions about exhibitions. He has thus far not issued any further comments about the Center, though he did recently say that he appreciates “the hum of the heartland”, which is another indication of why he chose Tulsa as the ideal home for the Archives.

The Center offers a spectrum of American culture by preserving music, poetry and visual sensibility through documentaries, concert footage, album cover artwork and design, and maybe fashion through the garments Dylan chose over the years?

Fashion would be an illuminating and fun lens through which to view Dylan’s life and career. He has been with us for so long as a musical icon, and his style is always notable. We have, for example, the costume that he wore for his role in the film Masked and Anonymous; he also wears it in a fantastic filmed performance of the song Cold Irons Bound that we are showing in the gallery. We also have the black leather jacket he wore at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival when he infamously “went electric” and made more noise than the traditional folkies.

Dylan’s imagery is difficult to define in its complexity and kaleidoscopic colour changes. Which albums or songs do speak more to your soul?

These change all the time. Depending on my mood, the time of day, the state of the world, or the amount of sleep I’ve had (or haven’t had), I might reach for Series of Dreams or Positively 4th Street, or I Threw It All Away or Baby, Stop Crying. Later that same day I might wish to get lost in the swampy atmosphere of the Oh Mercy album or be shocked into action by Modern Times. Dylan changes all the time, we change from day to day, nothing is constant, nothing stays still. However, Dylan is always there for us in one way or another. What gifts he’s given, again and again.


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