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How the Bob Dylan Archive, Center, and Institute will forever change the way we see The Bard



Photos courtesy of The Bob Dylan Archive

On October 23, 2016, Bob Dylan met George Kaiser at the Woody Guthrie Center. Ten days earlier, it had been announced that Dylan was to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. Dylan was silent about the honor, but in Tulsa he had time to meet the man who purchased his archives and pay tribute to the legacy of Guthrie.

“At the same time the Nobel Committee was looking for Dylan, he’s hanging out at Woody’s place,” said Deana McCloud, executive director of the Woody Guthrie Center. “Something about that just seemed right.”

Along with Kaiser and McCloud was Michael Chaiken, curator of The Bob Dylan Archive, who splits his time between New York City and Tulsa.

Dylan spent around 45 minutes at the Center, enjoying both the gallery and archival materials. One item that caught his interest, according to McCloud, was “Weegee’s People,” a photobook that Guthrie had annotated with snarky comments. McCloud showed Dylan the doors to Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in New Jersey, which were salvaged and sent to the Center before the hospital was demolished in 2014. A young Dylan had walked through those doors to meet Guthrie for the first time in 1961.

“Seeing that realization of what those doors were, was really impactful,” McCloud said. “It was interesting to see the reaction, and I think that meant a lot to him.”

McCloud plans to have the lead paint on the doors sealed and to put the items on display so patrons can pass through just as Guthrie and Dylan once did.

In addition to paying tribute to Guthrie, there Dylan saw how Guthrie’s archives had been treated. Kaiser purchased the archives in 2011 and built the Woody Guthrie Center in 2013. The George Kaiser Family Foundation (GKFF) has a similar plan for The Bob Dylan Archive. The Bob Dylan Center (BDC) is scheduled for completion in 2020. It will be located near the Woody Guthrie Center in the Tulsa Arts District, will feature a rotating display of print and digital materials from the archives and a rotating exhibit space, and will host community events.

“We really want to drive home the fact that this is first and foremost a civic project for Tulsa and the surrounding community,” Chaiken said. “So much of the work we’re doing here has to be driven by the interests of people in Tulsa and the surrounding area, because we want people to come back.”

Chaiken described plans for an upcoming program that will bring prominent musicians, entertainers, politicians, and public figures to Tulsa leading up the launch of the BDC. These 120-plus individuals will spend time with the archives, engage in community events, and write personal statements about what Dylan means to them.

“[The BDC] isn’t so narrowly focused on Bob, his life and his career,” Chaiken said. “Bob intersects with all sorts of other disciplines and influences, things he’s taken in and things he’s influenced—you can make a pretty convincing case that all these other areas are somehow tied to Dylan and his work.”

The BDC will be a space for the public to interact with curated archival materials—carefully selected from an estimated 45,000–50,000 photos, thousands of hours of audio and video from studio master tapes and live shows, thousands of pages of Dylan’s writing, and ephemera, with more items on the way. The Helmerich Center for American Research at the Gilcrease museum will permanently house these items. It’s important that the BDC will allow the public a space to appreciate these items, because the archives are strictly for serious research purposes. While the archives are the anchor and catalyst for the BDC, they will do more for Tulsa than bring tourism.

The Bob Dylan Archive gatekeeper is Mark A. Davidson, librarian and head archivist. He works closely with Dylan’s office in New York on the digital archive, processes physical materials, and is instituting a metadata-driven archival management system to make the collections usable for researchers. Davidson estimated that, including photos and posters, there are roughly 60,000 physical items and around 100,000 digital items in the archives. A third version of the finding aid is accessible on The Bob Dylan Archive website (bobdylanarchive.com), to give one some idea of its contents, but Davidson is working beyond that to make related items interconnected across Dylan’s career.

“I’m looking to drill down to make connections that archives aren’t normally able to make,” Davidson said, “which is item-level subject tagging, so that all of the materials are working together in a way I couldn’t do if I worked at a traditional archive with numerous collections.”

Both Chaiken and Davidson mentioned the freedom that working with GFKK has provided them, which is unusual in the archival world. The money is there, and many important decisions are made quickly and unanimously without much red tape at all, fast-tracking the opening of the Archive.

The University of Tulsa partnered with GKFF in the acquisition of the Archive from the beginning. Sean Latham, TU’s Walter Endowed Chair of English, and Brian Hosmer, the university’s H.G. Barnard Chair in Western American History, are the directors of the TU Institute for Bob Dylan Studies. Latham taught an undergraduate class on Dylan that coincided with the archive announcement, and he felt strongly about the importance of TU’s taking up the mantle of Dylan research in Tulsa. All of the research done on Dylan and the many volumes published about his career have all been completed without the help of the archives now located in Tulsa. The new materials will allow for research into uncharted territory.

The Institute hosted its first research symposium, “Dylan in the Classroom 2018,” February 9–10, which was open to the public. Speakers discussed their integration of Dylan and other American pop musicians into various curriculums, including for Tulsa Public Schools special education classes and university courses in U.S. history. The study of Dylan provides a teaching method that contextualizes historical events and touches on important social issues. The Institute will host conferences, provide research fellowships, and publish a journal related to Dylan broadly exploring the impact of American pop music in the wake of the radio.

“What our job is, as a research institute,” Latham said, “is to encourage and support the academic research into Dylan that will lead to big projects down the road.”

Dylan is a well-known name the world over, but few know about his life beyond his music or understand the compositional methods that give his lyricism such depth. Academic research is what supports projects such as biographies, documentaries, and books about music, and these are what ultimately shape the public consciousness of writers and musicians beyond their albums and performances. Tulsa is where Dylan will be both memorialized as a cultural figure and entered into the academy.

“Even as Dylan was making his music … at least by 1971, 1972, there was a recognition that this was a major creative figure, not just a musician, that his lyrics were unusually poetic,” Latham said. “That what makes Dylan Dylan is the fact that he brings a kind of poetic sensibility largely born out of the Beats—but with some global influences, particularly from modernism, writers like Rimbaud and so forth … and a particular orientation, I would say, towards history. Dylan [was] working deep into the folk tradition, reprocessing it in the same way that Joyce went back and reprocessed Homer as well as Flaubert. [This] makes this work particularly rewarding, in the same way that studying “Ulysses” is rewarding, because you find all of this intertextuality and reference and history all imbedded within one book. You find the very same thing in Dylan’s lyrics.”

With the Guthrie and Dylan archives, Tulsa is an American music research capital. Soon, fans will be able to explore both Centers in a single day. Just as Guthrie, the Beats, and Rimbaud inspired Dylan, Dylan will now inspire us even more directly.

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