The words “don’t look back” have long been associated with Bob Dylan, but it seems the Nobel Prize–winning singer-songwriter isn’t above flipping through his own back pages. Starting May 10, his many fans can do the same, at the brand-new Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“There had always been talk among Dylanologists—had he been saving everything, are there handwritten lyrics, are there journals, where is this stuff if it exists?” says Steven Jenkins, the center’s director. “Sure enough, Dylan had been amassing this incredible body of material, and when the time came for him to decide where it was going to live, he chose Tulsa.”
Why, one might ask, did Dylan—who is most often associated either with New York’s Greenwich Village, where he first became famous, or the tiny town of Hibbing, Minnesota, where he grew up—choose Tulsa? The answer, my friend… is Woody Guthrie. Dylan originally came to New York in the early ’60s in part to seek out the legendary Oklahoman songwriter (who was then hospitalized in New Jersey with Huntington’s disease), and in 2016 he sold his archive to the George Kaiser Family Foundation, which also owns Guthrie’s archive and in 2013 built the Woody Guthrie Center mere steps from the site of the Dylan Center.
“I think he got a look at the Woody Guthrie Center and was impressed, and started thinking, ‘Maybe something along the lines of this could work for my own archives,’” says Jenkins. “This is quite possibly the largest archive in existence devoted to the life and work of a living artist. We’re talking about more than 100,000 artifacts.”
Among the collection’s highlights are handwritten notebooks that include in-process and alternate lyrics for the songs that would make up 1975’s Blood on the Tracks, as well as the leather jacket Dylan wore at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, when he played an electric set that drew boos from the audience, hinting at how he would constantly defy expectations throughout his eclectic career.
“What we hope to do with those sorts of objects is place them in context,” Jenkins says. “That Newport date changed so much. Alongside previously unseen footage of that concert and materials that reconstruct the whole day and what happened on stage and what the response was, that jacket becomes an emblem of change.”
The center, which was designed by the award-winning architecture firm Olson Kundig, also features a number of interactive elements: listening booths where visitors can hear artists that influenced Dylan; a digital jukebox programmed with playlists by artists who followed in his footsteps, such as Elvis Costello; and a studio experience in which guests can isolate tracks from landmark songs. There’s also a reading room, curated in part by the center’s first artist in residence, Tulsa native and U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo. All of it is meant to spur visitors to find another side of themselves.
“This is all centered on Bob Dylan,” Jenkins says, “but we hope that folks who come in will engage with this work and really be inspired to tap into their own creativity.”