Inside the Bob Dylan Archive -- And Why It's In Oklahoma

Bob Dylan
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Bob Dylan poses for a portrait that appears on the cover of of his 'Another Side of Bob Dylan' album on Aug. 8, 1964 in New York City.

Perhaps it's appropriate that the Bob Dylan Archive Collection, a treasure trove of over 100,000 items related to the icon, is located in Tulsa, Oklahoma. After all, this is a city located in the midst of the menacing tornado alley -- and just in time for Dylan's 78th birthday last week, Mother Nature sent a bevy of twisters to this part of the country. While Dylan did sing of "Shelter From the Storm" and about a "Hurricane" (the latter, of course, a nickname for the boxer Rubin Carter), it's the phenomena of the swirling tornado -- unmistakable, unstoppable, roaring through to irrevocably change the landscape, and a staple of the American experience -- that arguably encapsulates not only Dylan's rise but his place in national culture.  

Meteorological comparisons aside, it's that rise and permanent stature as not only a music legend but a distinctly towering American artist that is painstakingly chronicled here in Oklahoma, just northwest of Downtown Tulsa. It's part of a broader vision of George Kaiser, a native Tulsan and extraordinarily wealthy financier whose Family Foundation saw fit that Dylan's archives would be right at home in the city, if only for the fact that Tulsa is also home to the Woody Guthrie Center. Guthrie, another legendary American singer-songwriter who spoke of the plights and positive attributes of living in the U.S., was a major early influence on Dylan, and later fostered a relationship with him.

"We haven't heard anything about what he thinks we're doing here," says Steve Higgins, the special projects manager at the Dylan Center, who joined its ranks after working with the Guthrie Center. Not that he's surprised by the silence. While the center has a "great working relationship on an almost daily basis" with Dylan's team, the only time they heard from the man himself was when initial plans were announced, and Dylan spoke of his pride of having his work displayed a short distance from the Guthrie Center and in an area so closely associated with the Native American people. The limited contact, however, is on brand for an artist who speaks so rarely in public that he says nary a word during live performances aside from what's sung, and even decided to send in a speech when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 rather than accept in person.

It's that well-known quality of his personality, Dylan's mysticism and sheer elusiveness, that gives the Archive extra weight, and provides rich insight into not only his creative process but the world that's spun, tornado-like, around him. "I think our crown jewel is probably the blue notebook," explains Higgins, referring to an artifact previously not known to exist until it traveled to Tulsa. It contains the early drafts of lyrics for Dylan's seminal 1975 album Blood on the Tracks, which featured his trademark "Tangled Up in Blue." It's not only considered one of Dylan's greatest works, but one of the most acclaimed albums of all time. "The first time I saw these lyric manuscripts, it gave me chills," says Higgins. "You can see him beginning to form these songs and where he's jotting down words to find a rhyme. It's a fascinating peek into his creative process. To stand there and look at some of the greatest rock songs ever written… These are landmark compositions that are indelibly American." Bringing it all home is the fact that, with some exceptions such as that little blue notebook, Dylan tended to write on whatever he could find whenever inspiration poured out of him, from napkins to scraps of paper. The lyrics to 1964's "Chimes of Freedom," the track from his fourth studio album Another Side of Bob Dylan, can be found scrawled not on crisp notebook paper, but rather a notepad boasting the letterhead of the long defunct Waldorf Astoria in Toronto.

Aside from seeing clues of a frantic songwriter reaching for any kind of paper to harness his creative flood, the Archive also depicts life as music royalty; a king whose ring is to be kissed by the disciples who learned from or were inspired by him. It's a sentiment exemplified by a letter the late Jeff Buckley wrote to Dylan which has also found its way to Tulsa. In it, he apologizes for a perceived slight during a 1993 concert where Buckley impersonated the king himself and it got back to him. "I fucked up, I really fucked up," Buckley wrote in his impassioned apology, before humbly ending the letter, "And you know who's going to read this? The President of Sony Records, my A&R man, my manager, his two managers, his friend Ratzo, and this is my personal plea of love to Bob Dylan, and this is what happens when you're not nobody anymore." Cheerier correspondences are also documented: a letter to Dylan from George Harrison in which the Beatle congratulates him on his ninth album, 1969's twangy Nashville Skyline, as well as a note from Tony Bennett honoring Dylan's artistic side. (Bennett himself is an accomplished artist.)

"One discovery that's obvious upon looking through the archive is what a multifaceted artist he is," says Higgins of Dylan's vast creative output. "He's a visual artist, he's a painter, a sculptor, filmmaker, a literary figure. We all know and love his music obviously, but he's an artist in the truest sense and was never bound to one medium." This aspect of Dylan's career is also emphasized in Tulsa, with a special selection of 2012-era Dylan portraiture on display at the city's Gilcrease Museum dubbed Face Value. "It's a set of 12 pastels formerly shown at the National Portrait Gallery in London and is our first major exhibition drawn from the Archive," says Higgins of the pictures, on display alongside a smattering of Dylan material. The public exhibit at the Gilcrease is a mere fraction of the Archive itself, which is currently housed at the Helmerich Center for American Research and is now only permitted to be explored by qualified researchers by request until a larger center is built. (There are plans to establish one in the Tulsa Arts District by 2021 and naturally, it'd be neighbors to the Woody Guthrie Center.)

Deeper into the archives, Dylan's trajectory comes to vivid life in its immense collection of footage, both audio and visual recordings, many of them raw and unedited, all of which provide further evidence of his output. A linear story then emerges, starting with a rare recording of a teenage Dylan with some friends back in his hometown of Duluth, Minnesota, to when Dylan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. "When I think about Bob Dylan, what comes to mind is Bruce Springsteen's statement the night he was inducted," says Higgins, trying to sum up the troubadour's sweeping impact when his influence blew in. "Springsteen said, 'The way Elvis freed your body, Dylan freed your mind.' I think that's a great way to put it. He brought a literary intelligence to pop music that simply hadn't existed before."