University of Tulsa Walter Professor of English Sean Latham has long been interested in Bob Dylan. In fact, he grew up listening to his music and quickly became a fan. As editor of the James Joyce Quarterly, Latham already had experience studying a single author and working in archives, so when TU and the George Kaiser Family Foundation acquired the Bob Dylan Archive, Latham was energized by this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Today, Latham is the director of the TU Institute for Bob Dylan Studies. In a conversation with English major Tyler Hughes, Latham shared his thoughts on Dylan’s career, impact on popular culture and the amazing resource that is the Bob Dylan Archive.
Bob Dylan received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016 “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Can you shed some light on the nature of these “new poetic expressions” and their relationship to American song?
Dylan is important because he brought a poet’s sensibility to what pop music could be. By the time he started writing his own music, the early stage of rock-and-roll — the Elvis Presley era — had basically run its course. It had flared briefly into popularity and essentially created the American teenager as a new identity, but it also had begun to wane.
The young Dylan — he was just twenty when he released his first album — changed everything by writing his own songs about often intensely personal experiences like love, anxiety, fear and anger. He also wrote about political issues that rarely found their way into pop music: the Civil Rights Movement, nuclear war, political oppression and environmental degradation.
And he drew his inspiration not just from pop music, but from old folk songs, the Blues, experimental form and modern poetry. If we understand him in this larger context of American literary history, he is a bridge between the Beat Poets of the 1950s and the more experimental art we see in the 1960s. By bringing the sensibility of the Beat Poets into the moment and connecting it with pop songs, he created a whole new form of expression in which a restless generation could hear their own fears and anxieties.
How is Dylan regarded by the American poetry community today? What place does literary/poetic studies have in the world of Bob Dylan research and teaching?
Dylan is, I believe, the most influential artist of the second half of the twentieth century — and I don’t just mean among musicians. He won the Nobel Prize in 2016 and although it caused some controversy at the time, other winners like Salman Rushdie and Kazuo Ishiguro emphasized just how important Dylan’s music and ideas had been to their own writing.
Dylan is a meticulous wordsmith who can not only craft amazing lines, but somehow bend them around a 4/4 beat and a classic guitar riff. And, through some kind of alchemy, the whole thing becomes a deeply philosophical yet readily accessible meditation on the nature of self. Dylan’s genius, in other words is not just on the page, but in a living moment of performance on the stage.
What is included in the Bob Dylan Archive?
The Bob Dylan Archive is essentially a sprawling record of his creative life, starting from the time he left home, moved to New York and devoted himself to the life of an artist and performer. Currently, it contains over 100,000 objects, including pages and pages of notebooks, drafts for songs, reading notes, Bible quotes, business correspondence, photographs and draft after draft of unrecorded songs. At the core of all of this are the session tapes and videos, where we can literally hear him work a line of poetry into a song.
With this material, you can actually see some of his most famous songs take shape, as they start from a scribbled note, build into a draft, go through revision, then get introduced at a recording session where they again morph in sound, meaning and feeling. His most famous song, “Like A Rolling Stone,” starts off as a waltz in the studio then falls apart when the band can’t make it work. Suddenly, Dylan sets it to a weird groove and the song as we know it starts to take shape. We can see that song and trace every step of the way how Dylan made it into an idea and then a work of art. It’s one of those rare archives, in other words, in which we can see one of the century’s greatest minds at work.
Why is Tulsa the perfect place for the Bob Dylan Archive?
The George Kaiser Family Foundation purchased the archives and there is a clear interest in making Tulsa into a center for the study of popular American music in the Roots tradition. Lots of popular musicians from this era have come from this part of Oklahoma, which is an interesting confluence of traditions. The Dylan Archive, in fact, is just part of a larger set of Tulsa-based institutions that include the Woody Guthrie Center, the new OK POP! Museum, Church Studio, Cain’s Ballroom and more. There is a huge amount of energy around this material, and it’s creating opportunities not only for the city but for TU students as well.
What fascinating research is in the works with regards to Dylan and the Archive?
The exciting thing you can say about the Bob Dylan Archive at the moment is much of it is essentially untouched material. This means we are essentially at the start of a new era where the scholar takes over from the fan. You’ll start to see stuff focused on particular Dylan albums or eras. And because he changed his musical style over the course of his career, because he’s sort of a chameleon in that he’s always changing, even trying to get your head around one Dylan is an enormous project. With 100,000 objects, no one person could do that.
What opportunities are there for TU English students to get involved in Dylan research?
TU students are going to have unique opportunities here. While other students would have had to travel hundreds of miles just to have brief internships, TU students can easily integrate the Bob Dylan Archive into their studies, through their own internships, a Tulsa Undergraduate Research Challenge project or through their courses. They will be able to hear and work with material that no one else in the world will be able to access.
Two students, in fact, are currently working to hand-open thousands of fan letters sent to Dylan. And one of them, Nathan Blue, has been presenting his findings at major national conferences. There are opportunities like that, to work hands-on handling archival material, to see how things function in the digital age and to do original research.