Peeling Back the Elusive Bob Dylan’s Many Layers

At the newly opened Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa, more than 100,000 objects, writings, and recordings from the Nobel Prize–winning songwriter’s illustrious career will reveal the inner workings of one of history’s most prolific—and secretive—creative figures.

The Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa. All images courtesy of Bob Dylan Center

Bob Dylan was always famously stubborn about decoding the meaning behind his work, which at this point speaks for itself: hundreds of convention-defying anti-war anthems and American classics have landed him a Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize, and permanently enshrined him as one of history’s greatest living songwriters. It’s no surprise, then, that he had virtually no involvement in the creation of the Bob Dylan Center, a $10 million facility in Tulsa that seeks to shed light on the elusive music legend’s songwriting process and past. 

The new space, which opens today, has amassed an exhaustive archive of 100,000 objects—among them unopened notebooks of workshopped lyrics, a duffel bag of fan mail, and rare recordings—that peel back the layers of Dylan’s illustrious career. The full archive is only available to credentialed researchers, but fans will find something to love within the 75-foot-long interactive archive wall, the Cabinet of Curiosities. There, wooden boxes display career highlights, including Milton Glaser’s 1967 poster showing Dylan with kaleidoscopic hair. Elsewhere, a mock studio lets visitors mix Dylan’s original recordings of classic songs or jam out to a digital jukebox of 162 tracks chosen by Elvis Costello.

Tulsa may seem like a strange choice for a center honoring the Minnesota-born Dylan, who eventually came up through the New York folk scene of the 1960s. But the Bob Dylan Center, which occupies a former paper factory renovated by Olson Kundig within the Tulsa Arts District, looks perfectly at home near the Woody Guthrie Center, a like-minded facility for one of the songwriter’s most formative influences. A large-scale mural of a 1966 image of Dylan captured by photographer Jerry Schatzberg graces the facade, but don’t expect the legend himself to visit anytime soon.

“It’s not so much in his nature to look back,” Bob Dylan Center director Stephen Jenkins tells NPR. “We’re far less interested in saying ‘we’ve got this guy figured out’ because what’s so wonderful about Dylan, among much else, is the elusiveness,” he continues. “What you get a sense of is the decisions, the choices that were being made right in the moment.”

Surface Says: We’re impressed at how thorough these archives look, from a notebook with scribbled lyrics for Blood on the Tracks dubbed the “Maltese Falcon of Dylanology” to the contents of his wallet, which included Johnny Cash’s phone number in Tennessee.

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