Inside the grand opening of the Bob Dylan Center
Written by Susan Hylton
More than 100,000 items from the Bob Dylan Archive now officially have their home at the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where a VIP grand opening kicked off Thursday, May 5 with a series of events.
Donors, partners, members and media are the first to visit the three-story, 29,000 square foot facility designed by Olson Kundig next to the Woody Guthrie Center at 116 E. Reconciliation Way, before it opens to the public May 10. .
What’s inside? It might be easier to tell what couldn’t be found inside Dylan’s tower. The collection of his prolific career may well stretch to the skies like Babel. It is nonetheless a musicologist’s dream, an artist’s inspiration to create, and a fan’s playground.
Items include Dylan’s handwritten lyrics and manuscripts, scribbled notebooks with his thoughts, phrases and drawings, sheet music, recordings and concert footage, documentaries, videos, photos, his arts visuals and his sculptures, articles, correspondence, memorabilia, musical instruments, his clothes, typewriters and even the contents of his wallet, which included Johnny Cash’s Tennessee phone number.
A self-guided, self-paced audio tour provides the soundtrack to a thoughtful selection of mixed media telling the story of how Robert Zimmerman, a restless boy from Hibbing, Minnesota, became Bob Dylan. Visitors can dive deep into Dylan’s life as an evolving artist influenced initially by his fateful discovery of Woody Guthrie and his journey to meet him on the East Coast where he got to show the sick folk legend he knew all his songs.
A photo of the cafe Dylan played at the University of Minnesota in April 1961 is followed by an article later that year in The New York Times that captures the rapid rise of folk music’s “shiny new face.” There are photos of Dylan living in Greenwich Village, hanging out with folk singers and beat poets, recording his first album at Columbia Records at just 20, and a letter Dylan wrote for Broadside magazine about his bewilderment at the idea of becoming famous, where he concludes:
“everyone plays in my world
there is no one first second third or fourth
everyone shoots at the same time
a ringtone does not count
an everyone wins
Because everyone lives and breathes”
Other career milestones are highlighted throughout, such as the time an unwavering Dylan went electric despite criticism from the folk community. A British music magazine quotes the man of few words extensively during a performance at the Albert Hall as he dressed up an English audience and vowed never to perform in England again in response to criticism that his songs were “drug songs”.
There are all the many stories behind the tours, albums and songs, including the circus atmosphere of the 1975 Rolling Thunder concert tour where Dylan, in white make-up, first performed “Tangled Up in Blue” and songs like “Hurricane” about the wrongful conviction of boxer Rubin Carter. The many revisions he made to his songs can also be seen in his own writing such as “Brownsville Girl”, which is co-written with playwright Sam Shepard.
It also chronicles the calmer but creative period in Woodstock where he raised a family and stopped touring for a while, the concert in Bangladesh in 1971, his gospel period from 1978 to 1983, Live Aid and Farm Aid, the Traveling Wilburys, tours with the Grateful Dead, Tom Petty and Patti Smith, a rare MTV unplugged appearance, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016.
A 55-seat screening room showcases never-before-seen works, including a previously unknown film soundtrack, plus revered performances of “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and other filmed productions on stage where you can watch Dylan and Joan Baez harmonizing cheek to cheek. Nearby, a touchscreen wall of album art allows visitors to pull songs and information from Dylan’s mass catalog.
The Church Studio exhibit, sponsored by the Leon Russell recording studio put on the map in Tulsa, recreates a control room where visitors can listen to conversations from five real-life recording sessions as band members worked with Dylan on the arrangements of his lyrics, chords and melodies. . The track “Like a Rolling Stone” features Al Kooper, who improvised an organ riff for the song. Although not technically perfect, Dylan insisted on riding it. Kooper, who was a guitarist, said it was the day he became an organist; the riff became the song’s signature sound and a copied style.
“I Want You”, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”, “Most of the Time” and “Mississippi” are the other tracks. The musicians describe what it was like to work with him and the arduous journey it sometimes took to bring a song to an album. It was said that Dylan’s favorite instrument was actually the band.
Dylan, who turns 81 later this month, was not present for the grand opening but performed at the Tulsa Theater last month as part of his Rough and Rowdy Ways World Tour. The grand opening includes nightly performances by three of his fellow artists, Mavis Staples, Patti Smith and Elvis Costello, and after-hours concerts each evening.
Dylan sold his archives to the charity George Kaiser Family Foundation of Tulsa, which is part of the American Song Archives and now operates both the Woody Guthrie Center and the Bob Dylan Center. While some were confused about where these treasures were kept in Tulsa, Dylan said he was happy with it and gospel legend Mavis Staples, who got the party started with a performance at the historic Cain’s Ballroom in her honor Thursday night, seemed so good.
“I went to the Dylan Center, Bob Dylan Center. Oh my god, oh man, I had the best time today,” she said between songs. “I put Bobby doing ‘Tangled in Blue’ and then I walked out of there, took a trip to the church, The Church Studio. I had a great time, it freaked me out. made me want to move to Tulsa.
Dylan Photo courtesy of Gus Stewart/Redferns via Getty Images