Bob Dylan’s Secret Archive
TULSA, Okla. — For years, Bob Dylan scholars have whispered about a tiny notebook, seen by only a few, in which the master labored over the lyrics to his classic 1975 album “Blood on the Tracks.” Rolling Stone once called it “the Maltese Falcon of Dylanology” for its promise as an interpretive key.
But that notebook, it turns out, is part of a trinity. Sitting in climate-controlled storage in a museum here are two more “Blood on the Tracks” notebooks — unknown to anyone outside of Mr. Dylan’s closest circle — whose pages of microscopic script reveal even more about how Mr. Dylan wrote some of his most famous songs.
There have long been rumors that Mr. Dylan had stashed away an extensive archive. It is now revealed that he did keep a private trove of his work, dating back to his earliest days as an artist, including lyrics, correspondence, recordings, films and photographs. That archive of 6,000 pieces has recently been acquired by a group of institutions in Oklahoma for an estimated $15 million to $20 million, and is set to become a resource for academic study.
In a preview of the Bob Dylan Archive by The New York Times, it is clear that the archives are deeper and more vast than even most Dylan experts could imagine, promising untold insight into the songwriter’s work.
“It’s going to start anew the way people study Dylan,” said Sean Wilentz, the Princeton historian and author of “Bob Dylan in America,” when told about the existence of the archive.
Bought by the George Kaiser Family Foundation — whose namesake is an oil and banking billionaire — and the University of Tulsa, Mr. Dylan’s archives are now being transferred to Oklahoma, the home state of Woody Guthrie, Mr. Dylan’s early idol. After two years of cataloging and digitization, the material will take its place in Tulsa alongside a rare copy of the Declaration of Independence, a cache of Native American art and the papers of Guthrie.
Mr. Dylan said in a statement that he was glad his archives had found a home “and are to be included with the works of Woody Guthrie and especially alongside all the valuable artifacts from the Native American nations.” He added, with typical understatement, “To me it makes a lot of sense, and it’s a great honor.”
With voluminous drafts from every phase of Mr. Dylan’s career, the collection offers a comprehensive look at the working process of a legendarily secretive artist. Dozens of rewrites track the evolution of even minor songs like “Dignity,” which went through more than 40 pages of changes but was still cut from the 1989 album “Oh Mercy.”
Classics from the 1960s appear in coffee-stained fragments, their author still working out lines that generations of fans would come to know by heart. (“You know something’s happening here but you,” reads a scribbled early copy of “Ballad of a Thin Man,” omitting “don’t know what it is” and the song’s famous punch line: “Do you, Mister Jones?”) The range of hotel stationery suggests an obsessive self-editor in constant motion.
And while the archive is a further step in the canonization of Mr. Dylan, now 74, as not just a musical icon but also an American literary giant, the documents are tantalizing in what they do not reveal. A card from Barbra Streisand postmarked November 1978, for example, thanks Mr. Dylan for sending flowers and playfully suggests that they make a record together; there is no evidence of a response.
For longtime students, seeing the archive may conjure a familiar feeling of astonishment at just how deep the well of Dylanology goes. There is always far more beneath the surface than anyone could guess. One example of this phenomenon — and of how radically the material could change existing Dylan scholarship — is the “Blood on the Tracks” material.
The “little red notebook,” which by most accounts was stolen from Mr. Dylan at some point, circulated among collectors and is now held at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, with access severely restricted. But the existence of two more books shows how much raw material has been unavailable and unknown for study. The song “Tangled Up in Blue,” with its refracted scenes of a wanderer haunted by a broken relationship, gets a slightly more picaresque telling here, with a refrain absent from the finished recording: “Wish I could lose, these dusty sweatbox blues.” Even in songs that have been pored over for decades, new layers of meaning await discovery.
The archive also shows the careful work behind even the most disjointed parts of the Dylan oeuvre. “Tarantula,” his book of Beat-like prose poetry, has multiple typescripts, neatly annotated by hand, while the convoluted film “Eat the Document” is represented with a thick sheath of prosaic editing notes (“me fixing my hair — might be interesting”). There are hundreds of original tape reels, unseen concert films and business contracts going back to the very beginning of Mr. Dylan’s career.
Humanizing touches appear, but in small and scattered pieces. There is a wallet from the mid-1960s containing Johnny Cash’s phone number and Otis Redding’s business card. We can see the 1969 telegram from “Peter and Dennis” (Fonda and Hopper, that is) about the use of “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” in the film “Easy Rider,” but the response is by a lawyer. Amid these mountains of paper, Mr. Dylan, the man, remains an enigma.
“This is an artist whose working process has been as private as his personal life,” Professor Wilentz noted.
George B. Kaiser, the driving force behind the acquisition, is far from the cult of rabid Dylandom. In an interview in his spacious office at the Kaiser-Francis Oil Company here, Mr. Kaiser, 73, made clear that he is less of an aficionado of Dylan than an appreciator of his place in American history. “I was taken by Joan Baez in college,” he said, “when she was singing down the block.” (He went to Harvard.)
With a fortune estimated at more than $7 billion, Mr. Kaiser is the richest man in Oklahoma, although in his plain blue shirt and Casio watch he hardly looks the part. The son of refugees from Nazi Germany, he is a major Democratic fund-raiser in one of the reddest of states, and his family foundation — which Mr. Kaiser has endowed with about $3.4 billion — supports early childhood education and works with women in prison. Five years ago, the foundation acquired Woody Guthrie’s archives, and Mr. Kaiser said that the Guthrie and Dylan deals fit into the organization’s broader mission of revitalizing Tulsa.
“Portland wasn’t always cool; Seattle wasn’t always cool,” Mr. Kaiser said. “One of the ways you can try to make your city cool is by attracting talented young people and hoping that a number of them stick.”
The foundation built a slick mini-museum for the Guthrie material in downtown Tulsa, with interactive displays for the public and a professional staff for the papers. Then, in September 2014, Glenn Horowitz, a rare-book dealer in New York who had brokered the Guthrie transaction, emailed Ken Levit, the executive director of the Kaiser foundation, teasing an opportunity of “global significance.” The hyperbole, Mr. Levit said, made him think it had to be either Mr. Dylan or the Beatles.
Mr. Dylan’s archives had been amassed over the years as he and his office simply placed reams of material in storage. But as curious collectors and institutions made inquiries, and as evidence mounted of the astronomical sums paid at auction for some of his early manuscripts — a handwritten copy of “Like a Rolling Stone” sold for more than $2 million at Sotheby’s in 2014 — Mr. Dylan’s camp eventually hired an in-house archivist and retained Mr. Horowitz.
Mr. Horowitz, whose deals for the papers of figures like Norman Mailer, John Updike and Kurt Vonnegut have made him the go-to broker of major literary archives, said that the Dylan collection could have gone to virtually any university. But he did not want it to be treated as just another store of papers inside a giant library. At a place like Harvard, Mr. Horowitz said, “it would almost be as if it was just, after Emerson and after Updike, here comes Bob.”
So he pitched the collection to the Kaiser foundation and the University of Tulsa as a magnet for both scholarly study and international tourism. Most of the material will be housed at the Helmerich Center for American Research, a facility at the Gilcrease Museum, which is affiliated with the university. The Gilcrease has a vast collection of western art and early colonial archives, a fittingly historical setting for a songwriter whose words are regularly cited by Supreme Court justices. Although plans are still being made, the Kaiser foundation is also considering a spot next to the Guthrie museum for a new Dylan gallery that will be open to the public.
Access to the bulk of the archive will be restricted, but Steadman Upham, the president of the University of Tulsa — and an avowed Dylan fan — acknowledged that when it comes to experts in this material, the standard academic credentials need not apply. “We will be set up for serious scholars and for people who have a record of being Dylanologists,” he said.
So far, Mr. Dylan has not visited the foundation, the Gilcrease or the university. He had been scheduled to make a stop while passing through Tulsa on tour last year, but a tornado whipping through the region gave him only enough time to play the show and make it to the next town.
When asked about the size of the transaction, Mr. Kaiser and others involved in the deal declined to comment. The full archive was appraised at more than $60 million, with the bulk of it given as a donation; the difference between the appraised value and the purchase price may allow Mr. Dylan to claim a large charitable donation for tax purposes.
For Mr. Dylan, another motivation for the deal might be the prestige of an afterlife beside Guthrie, or a center devoted to serious study of his work. Over the last decade or so, he has also tended to his legacy, with the publishing of the first volume of his memoirs, “Chronicles,” in 2004; the release of Martin Scorsese’s documentary “No Direction Home,” in 2005; and even his career-spanning speech at a Grammy event last year.
Mr. Dylan has also long been strategic about releasing material from his back pages, dating to the 1975 release of “The Basement Tapes,” the heavily bootlegged private recordings of his work with the Band from around 1967, and his more recent “Bootleg” series — a collection, now up to 12 volumes, of outtakes, demos and live recordings.
The archive deal raises the question of whether other elders of the rock ’n’ roll generation will follow his lead. Some, like Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, are known to have extensive archives. Yet it is unclear how many more like them have even kept significant papers; what exists is already traded on a voracious collectors’ market.
Jon Landau, the longtime manager of Mr. Springsteen, declined to comment on his client’s papers. But while he acknowledged the need for professional maintenance of decades-old archives of major artists, he also noted the disconnect between the needs of professional archivists and the culture of rock in the 1960s. “Was anybody sitting around worrying about this kind of thing back then?” he said. “We were living in the era of ‘Hope I die before I get old.’”
For the Dylan archive, at least, there is more than enough to study. Aside from lyrics and paperwork, the collection also includes a huge amount of multimedia. Among the plans are for Mr. Dylan’s hundreds of original master tapes to be digitized down to the level of their individual instrumental tracks, or “stems,” with the potential for close examination or even interactive exhibitions that would let a visitor zoom in on the organ or guitar. (The official Dylan website has already begun to experiment with this, letting visitors play with the stems on “Like a Rolling Stone.”)
There are also some of his earliest recordings, from 1959, and films of Mr. Dylan’s concerts at Massey Hall in Toronto in 1980 and the Supper Club in New York in 1993. One film in particular seems destined to be viewed again and again in Tulsa. It is of rehearsals for Mr. Dylan’s “Rolling Thunder Revue” tour in 1975, in which he sits with a few musicians, working through the chords and lyrics of a particularly well-known song, but one he didn’t write.
It was “This Land Is Your Land,” by Woody Guthrie.THE NEW YORK TIMES