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Tulsa's Bob Dylan Center Celebrates the Creative Process

(Note: This story was first published in The Boston Globe on August 4, 2022.)

The first success of the recently opened Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa, Okla., is that it avoids the trope confounding Dylan since he first plugged his guitar into an amp at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. His early acoustic songs and his ground-breaking, “voice of a generation” protest anthems are part of the exhibits, of course. But so is the rest of the sweeping artistic journey that has been his 60-plus-year career.

Dylan, perhaps more than any artist in popular music, has followed his muse wherever it took him — from protest songs to romantic poetry to born-again Christian themes to haunting ballads. Some work has been better than the rest. But greatness has been sprinkled throughout.

Now curators have selected more than 100,000 items from Dylan’s own collection, along with audio and video interviews with him and other artists. They are offered not so much as a chronicle of his life, but an homage to his creative process, and to the ideal of fearless creativity.

This is an exhibit that does not try to “figure out” Dylan. It succeeds by focusing on his work.

“It’s not for us to say we’ve got [him] figured out,” said Steven Jenkins, the museum’s director.

But why Tulsa? Dylan, who grew up in Hibbing, Minn., has no specific ties to Oklahoma. The museum is there because the archives were purchased by the George Kaiser Family Foundation. Though based in California, Henry Kaiser was a native of Tulsa, and long supported charitable efforts there.

Serendipitously, this means that the Dylan Center is in the same building as the Woody Guthrie Center. Guthrie, a pioneering folk singer who came to fame during the Great Depression, was an early hero to Dylan. And the Guthrie Center is a worthwhile stop for any Dylan fan. Both are operated by the American Song Archives, part of the Kaiser Foundation, and both are situated in an emerging arts district, just off the downtown center.

At the heart of the Dylan Center experience is a personal audio guide system. Visitors are given a device, with headphones, that they can touch to various exhibits. Sometimes they will hear interviews with Dylan or other artists. Sometimes they will simply hear a Dylan song as they read about its genesis and look at artifacts related to its creation. This is especially powerful at the heart of the main exhibit, which is organized with two parallel tracks. Along the wall around the main room, Dylan’s story is told chronologically. In the center, however, are six free-standing displays, each dedicated to one song. The songs are “Chimes of Freedom,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “The Man in Me,” “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Jokerman,” and “Not Dark Yet.”

For Dylan fans who know these songs word for word, it is fascinating to hear him talking about where the song came from, and to see lyric fragments scribbled out on scraps of paper.

“Dylan is operating at such a high level that allows him to, hundreds of times, come up with songs that are just incredible and indelible,” Jenkins said. “But of course, like any artist he’s working at it ― scribbling on hotel stationery; waking up in the middle of the night grabbing a pad of paper next to his bed. And now we see those materials.”

Most powerful for me was the display dedicated to “Tangled Up in Blue,” from Dylan’s 1975 masterpiece “Blood on the Tracks.” The end of his marriage is the backdrop for the album and the song. And among the museum’s most treasured artifacts are the three so-called “blood notebooks,” filled with thoughts and scribblings as he was writing the album.

Any would-be writer who has ever thought the only thing standing between them and great art is a fancy, leather-bound journal or an expensive software program will be humbled at the flimsy, pocket-size spiral notebooks on which Dylan teased out the songs. They are literally the same spiral notebooks we of a certain age used in grade school to write down homework assignments. One can imagine Dylan buying all three at a truck stop somewhere, for less than a dollar.

Also featured at the center is actual footage from the recording of “Like a Rolling Stone,” Dylan’s 1965 hit. Documented here is the legendary story of Al Kooper, who, invited to the session as a spectator, somehow slipped behind a Hammond Organ and played on the track, his lagging riffs echoing the scathing lyrics like a Greek chorus.

Another highlight is a blank wall with markers at the ready, on which visitors are invited to share their thoughts. Museum staff dutifully photograph the wall before it is erased.

The center is also home to the 100,000 items in the Bob Dylan Archive Collection, which is only open to approved researchers and scholars.

The museum is open to the public, with a $12 admission fee for adults. One can get access to both the Dylan and Guthrie centers for $20.

Along with the Guthrie Center, also within walking distance and worth a visit is the Greenwood Cultural Center. Located in what was once known as the “Black Wall Street,” it commemorates the victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, in which as many as 300 African American residents were killed by white mobs.


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