Bob Dylan defies labels. He is an artist, musician, songwriter, activist, rock star, storyteller and Nobel laureate, but there is only one title that embodies Dylan’s legacy: American icon. From May 30 to June 2, The University of Tulsa Institute for Bob Dylan Studies and the Bob Dylan Archive hosted the World of Bob Dylan, an international conference that explored the numerous aspects of Dylan’s life and career.
Getting to know Dylan
In 2016, The George Kaiser Family Foundation acquired the Bob Dylan Archive with more than 100,000 items, but without research and exhibits, an archive merely collects dust. Through the words of scholars, critics and journalists, a virtual tour of the archive, a concert featuring his greatest hits and an exhibit of his artwork, the World of Bob Dylan was, in essence, an invitation to sit down and chat with the music legend.
The director of TU’s Institute for Bob Dylan Studies, Sean Latham, ensures dust never settles on the archive. “We put together a phenomenal program in order to show how both the Bob Dylan Archive and the Bob Dylan research institute at The University of Tulsa will enable all kinds of new work,” he said.
Participants had access to more than 150 scholars, teachers, critics and fans discussing topics like gender and race and the fundamental nature of Dylan’s creativity. “There is far more than any one person can take in,” Latham explained. “Instead, they had opportunities to explore a variety of different paths. They can take you on a narrow walk through a particular aspect of Dylan’s career or a wide array of experiences throughout Dylan’s productivity.”
Keynote speakers and events
- On the evening of May 30, the dean of American rock critics, Greil Marcus, discussed Dylan and the blues. From Rolling Stone to Pitchfork, Marcus is one of the world’s great rock critics and music writers. A special reception for all registered participants followed featuring music by local artists.
- NPR music critic Ann Powers delved into the life of Dylan and pop music on June 1. Powers examined how popular music shapes fundamental American ideas and beliefs. Pop music can communicate difficult emotions and truths about the most fraught social issues, most notably sex and race.
- That night, visitors received a special treat as the Bob Dylan Archive screened 100 minutes of newly restored footage from Dylan’s 1966 tour of Europe, the 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue and the 1986 Hard to Handle tour with Tom Petty.
- On the final night, Roger McGuinn, who was the genius behind the rock band The Byrds and made Dylan’s music famous in the mid-1960s, explored his experience with Dylan’s music in a conversation and performance format.
- The director of the Bob Dylan Archive, Michael Chaiken, gave a video guided tour through key elements of the collection. “This gave conference attendees one of the first and deepest looks yet into the Bob Dylan Archive,” Latham said.
Bob Dylan: Face Value and Beyond
At Gilcrease Museum, the exhibit Bob Dylan: Face Value and Beyond features Dylan’s artwork, a series of pastels that have rarely been seen. The art is surrounded with archival items like his leather jacket, handwritten lyrics and Dylan’s Andy Warhol screen tests.
“It might seem like something of a curve-ball to have an exhibit built around a series of paintings. But it’s really a kind of sneaky way to show what the archive truly is — something that showcases what a truly multifaceted artist Bob Dylan is,” Michael Chaiken told the Tulsa World.
The times they are a-changin’ in Tulsa
With the Woody Guthrie Center and now the Bob Dylan Center, Tulsa is slated to become an Americana music hub. Dylan’s connection to Guthrie was personal, and it is fitting to honor them in the same town. “Throughout his career, Dylan has long acknowledged Woody Guthrie as one of his guiding lights and influences,” Latham explained.
The World of Bob Dylan was spread across Tulsa allowing attendees to visit Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, Gilcrease Museum, the Helmerich Center for American Research and the Hyatt Regency Tulsa. “There is a concerted effort both with The University of Tulsa and the city of Tulsa to make us into a music city,” Latham said. “One way to do that is to build around exciting things like musical archives of some of the great American songwriters of the 21st century.”
The World of Bob Dylan paid homage to all of Dylan’s roles. Participants reveled in his complexity and celebrated his ingenuity. “Dylan’s creativity is enormous, wide-ranging and explosive. Certainly, one of the things that strikes us all about Dylan is his endless capacity for reimagination and self-invention,” Latham said. “There’s not simply one Bob Dylan.”