Bob Dylan’s fans have been trying to pin him down since his first album 60 years ago. He has fled from classification — changing styles and personas whenever they tried to put him in a box. So, it’s no surprise that when Dylan played in Tulsa, Oklahoma last month, he didn’t walk the few blocks down the street to visit the largest effort ever to classify his career: the Bob Dylan Center.
The former paper warehouse now holds 100,000 items from the artist’s long-rumored archives.
Steven Jenkins, the center’s director, showed CBS News’ John Dickerson some of the items on display, from Dylan’s letter to Jimi Hendrix about Hendrix’s remarkable cover version of “All Along the Watchtower,” to the actual tambourine that inspired the song “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
The University of Tulsa and local billionaire George Kaiser bought the archive in 2016 for an estimated $20 million, partly in the hope of drawing tourism to the area.
The center is a tour through the history of American popular music that grew out of the hootenannies Dylan joined in Greenwich Village apartments. In 1962, Mell and Lilian Bailey were smart enough to turn on the tape recorder in their living room, recording Dylan singing, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.”
One exhibit addresses Dylan’s famous decision to play electric guitar at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, which caused such an uproar that folk legend Pete Seeger was rumored to have called for an axe to cut Dylan’s cables. Jenkins said, “We have a letter written from Pete Seeger to Bob Dylan addressing both the truths and the falsehoods of that very tumultuous day at the Newport Folk Festival, the elder statesman folkie coming to terms with what his protégé was doing.”
Dickerson said, “People might think this is an obscure inside story. But what we’re really talking about here is who gets to speak the truth, and in what form do they get to speak the truth.”
“What you get a sense of is the decisions, the choices that were being made right in the moment,” Jenkins said.
But the great promise of the center is its voluminous manuscripts, notebooks and tablets offering a window into Dylan’s painstaking songwriting craft.
Mark Davidson, curator of the collection, said, “It’s his mind on the page. We’ve got an early version of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ here, replete with coffee stains. And you can see he’s pounding away on the keys, he makes a mistake, he just simply XXXX’s over it.”
Dickerson said, “It’s so great because there’s chaos, lines he doesn’t use, and then you see the ones he did. ‘Girl by the whirlpool’s looking for a new fool, don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters.'”
Dylan’s songwriting has lured fans of different generations, including Dickerson, who spoke to Robert Siegel of National Public Radio 35 years ago about Dylan’s appeal to a new generation: “Ninety-five percent of the music I listen to comes out of the Sixties, and 90% of the music I listen to happens to be Bob Dylan.”
Dickerson asked Davidson, “What do you see, not as Bob Dylan, but just as a craftsman making music?”
“In a song like ‘Dignity,’ from ‘Oh Mercy,’ we have 40 leaves, 45 pages worth of him just working and reworking that song,” he replied.
“I love, of course, the line from this song that ‘dignity has never been photographed.,'” Dickerson said. “In other words, you can’t hold it still. And here it’s not sitting still, either.”
Perhaps nothing in the collection is more valuable than the notebooks in which Dylan puzzled out the lyrics to his 1975 album “Blood on the Tracks.” “These have been the sort of Magna Carta, if you will, of Dylan studies,” said Jenkins.
The exhibit will open to the public on Tuesday. Visitors can follow Dylan’s process through six selected songs. The bulk of the archive (including never-before-seen film and audio that is not public) will be open only to scholars.
Jenkins noted, “We are far less interested in saying, ‘Ha! We got this guy figured out,’ because what’s so wonderful about Dylan, among much else, is the elusiveness.”
The elusiveness is the point.
The center affirms Dylan’s long-held view that he is the last person to tell you what his songs mean. Like all good art, we find meaning by wrestling with the words ourselves.
Meanwhile, Bob Dylan keeps moving on.
For more info:
- Bob Dylan Center, opening May 10 in Tulsa, Okla.
- bobdyland.com (Official site)
- “Sixties: Teens Recycle the Era” by Robert Siegel was originally broadcast on NPR’s “All Things Considered” on August 7, 1987. © 1987 National Public Radio, Inc. Used with the permission of NPR. Any unauthorized duplication is strictly prohibited.
Story produced by Robert Marston. Editor: Carol Ross.