February 17, 2018

Bob Dylan Archives to Find Home in Tulsa

Manuscript for "Chimes of Freedcm" Courtesy of Bob Dylan archives

Manuscript for “Chimes of Freedom”
Courtesy of Bob Dylan archives

Bob Dylan is one of the last century’s most influential, and legendary, musicians, with a career that spans from the early 1960s, when he began playing folk music in Greenwich Village clubs, to this year’s album Fallen Angels, expected to drop just before Dylan’s 75th birthday in May. Now Dylan’s archives—more than 6,000 items, including notebooks, drafts of lyrics, correspondence, unreleased studio and concert recordings, films, clothing, photographs, and business contracts—have been purchased by the George Kaiser Family Foundation (GKFF), a charitable organization based in Tulsa, OK, for an estimated $15–$20 million.

The collection will be moved to Tulsa and managed by the University of Tulsa’s (TU) Helmerich Center for American Research. Most of the material will be housed in the Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art (commonly known as the Gilcrease Museum), which is operated by the Helmerich Center. In addition to making materials available for scholarly research, plans for an interactive gallery space, similar to the nearby Woody Guthrie Center, are in the works.


As a charitable organization dedicated largely to investments in education, social services, and civic enhancement, GKFF did not generally collect cultural archives. But in 2011 foundation donor George Kaiser and executive director Ken Levit decided to acquire folksinger Woody Guthrie’s archives because of Guthrie’s connection with Oklahoma—he grew up in Okemah, about an hour from Tulsa—and built the Guthrie Center in downtown Tulsa to house them. Glenn Horowitz, a rare book dealer in New York, had helped broker the deal with the Guthrie family, and in June 2014 he contacted GKFF about the Dylan archives. “The opportunity came along to acquire the Bob Dylan archive and it seemed to make sense juxtaposed with Woody Guthrie”—who had been an idol of Dylan’s and an influence on his early music—“so we decided to explore it,” GKFF senior program officer Stanton Doyle told LJ.

Horowitz had been working on the archives since early 2014 with the help of Michael Chaiken, a freelance archivist based in New York. Chaiken specializes in “nontraditional” collections—“filmmakers, musicians, counterculture stuff”—serving as the middleman between the artists and the institutions receiving their archives. He had just wrapped up organizing the archives of filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker and his partner and wife Chris Hegedus, which included Pennebaker’s iconic film of Dylan’s 1965 U.K. concert tour, Don’t Look Back. Horowitz told Chaiken that something big was happening with the Dylan archives. “I said to him, ‘I have to work on that!’” Chaiken recalled. “And he said, ‘Why the hell do you think I’m telling you?'”

Chaiken teamed with Horowitz and Dylan’s office to catalog the archives. “Something I do for all the people that I work with,” Chaiken told LJ, “is essentially create the document that’s going to help an acquisition curator or librarian [understand] what the collection actually is.” Fortunately, Dylan’s office had already done a tremendous amount of work organizing the archives, which spanned from 1964 to 2012, into meticulously kept files and folders. “So it wasn’t like I walked into a situation where it was 100, 200 boxes of unmarked, unlabeled stuff.”

TU entered the negotiations as Chaiken was wrapping up his work on the catalog. The university had worked with Levit and GKFF for more than a decade on various projects, and the Dylan collection presented a good opportunity for the two to collaborate again. The foundation invited Horowitz and members of Dylan’s staff to Tulsa, showed them the Guthrie Center and some of GKFF’s social service programs, as well as TU’s existing holdings. In addition to the university’s extensive archives of British, Irish, and American modernist literature, the Helmerich Center houses a number of significant historical collections: Spanish Colonial documents and records of exploration going back to the 1520s; extensive Americana, including the only certified copy of the Declaration of Independence outside the Library of Congress; and a rich Native American collection. Dylan’s staff was impressed. “It was a personality match,” said Doyle. Once the Tulsa contingent had traveled to New York and seen the collection for themselves, they were ready to move forward.

Over the next year GKFF, TU, Horowitz, and Chaiken worked with Jeff Rosen, Dylan’s longtime manager and attorney, as well as Dylan’s publicist and several other recording industry attorneys to put the purchase agreement together. Dylan was “in the background,” according to TU president Steadman Upham, but not present. The deal was wrapped up by early fall of 2015.


Currently only one-sixth of the collection is in Tulsa. The remaining material is in the process of being sorted and packed, and will be shipped from New York over the next year. Once in Tulsa, everything that is undamaged will be frozen to prevent insect infestations. Archivists will do a complete survey for any conservation-related issues.

Although Chaiken usually moves on to a new project once an archive he has worked with goes to an institution, TU has asked him to stay on part-time as an “inaugural curator.” His role over the next few months, Chaiken told LJ, will be “basically helping them receive the materials, helping the people at the Gilcrease Center understand what it is they’re receiving, helping them create the finding aid so we can make this stuff available to the public, and also probably over the next six months curating some smaller public exhibitions of some of this material.”

TU owns a building near the Guthrie Center in Tulsa’s Brady Arts District that Upham hopes to repurpose as a gallery dedicated to the archives over the next 12–18 months. Although the two collections are separate—the Guthrie Center is an independent nonprofit built around the archives—there will be opportunities for partnership down the line. “Dylan really is considered one of Woody’s protégés,” noted Guthrie Center archivist Kate Blalack. “He came to Woody when [Guthrie] had Huntington’s, in the hospital—that’s when he first met [Guthrie], and he was greatly inspired by him.“

Some of the material will be digitized, but the main goal is to make the archive accessible to scholars; this means developing finding aids and instituting a formal process for scholars to contact TU with their research requests. “We’ve had, as you might imagine, a huge outpouring of interest from all over the world,” said Upham. “It’s been quite spectacular.”

Chaiken will also be working on the interactive aspects of the audio and film material. “People will be able to come in and sit at a station and look at outtake reels from some of the films, some of the performance footage, and be able to listen to the studio recordings. We’re working on some of that now. My role is continuing on with this collection, which is really great.”

Although Dylan has not yet visited Tulsa, he has agreed to make an appearance at some point. “Mr. Dylan is a very private person and somewhat enigmatic, as you probably know,” Upham told LJ. “We’re looking forward to developing a relationship that hopefully he’ll feel free to come see what we’re up to.”


Bob Dylan notebooks Courtesy of Bob Dylan archive; photo by Erik Campos

Bob Dylan notebooks
Courtesy of Bob Dylan archive; photo by Erik Campos

Chaiken, Doyle, and Upham are all Dylan fans, and having the chance to see the material firsthand, they agreed, was a treat. Multiple drafts of songs like “Maggie’s Farm,” “Tangled Up in Blue,” and “Subterranean Homesick Blues” tell the story of Dylan as a meticulous craftsman as well as an inspired writer. Looking at the lyrics of “Chimes of Freedom,” written on stationery from the Waldorf Astoria hotel, said Upham, “You can see that the first two and a half or three verses were in his head and they came out the way that he had envisioned them, and then the remaining verses are progressions of revisions and edits and cross outs. You can tell he did it over time because it’s different ink. It’s a fascinating example of his creative process.” (The final handwritten version of “Like a Rolling Stone” was auctioned for two million dollars in at Sotheby’s in 2014.) The recordings also tell a story of Dylan’s work—“sometimes 15, 16, 18 takes of the same song, and you can see the players change their approach to the music,” explained Upham.

The film outtakes are striking as well, Chaiken said: “Beautiful color footage, some of which Martin Scorsese uses in his Dylan documentary No Direction Home.” He added, “It’s some of the most beautiful, astonishing concert footage I’ve ever seen…. I mean, it’s been written about and talked about, and there’s so much mythology around the ’66 tour, and people have seen little bits and pieces of it. But when you see the whole thing play out, it’s unreal.”

Much of the credit, he noted, goes to Dylan’s staff, who have kept his memorabilia so well over the years. Partly this is due to the ongoing releases of Dylan’s 1960s “Bootleg Series,” which require that they have ready access to archival material as each album is rolled out. But also “they have a real serious, deep appreciation for what it is they have. It isn’t just the business of Bob Dylan.”

However, Tulsa is ready to step up and take over stewardship of Dylan’s material. “We feel very fortunate,” said Upham. “Now we have a big obligation to do it right and make it available.”

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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  1. Bob Dylan was first hired by my grandfather. I’m hosting a show together with Dylan and Mike Porco’s friends.
    Concert in NYC for Bob’s 75th
    Rob Stoner bandleader for the night

  2. Christy Chilton says:

    I’m one of many in NE Oklahoma who were thrilled by this news. Tulsa has a long history as a center for music and is home to the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame. Other musical innovators who are honored here include Bob Wills (Western Swing) and Leon Russell… quite a range. Bernie Sanders was here recently (campaigning before our Democratic primary) and made time to visit the Woody Guthrie Center.