Bob Dylan Archive Finds a Home in Tulsa: an Interview with Curator Michael Chaiken
Thanks to the generosity of George Kaiser Family Foundation and the University of Tulsa, The Bob Dylan Archive has found a home in Tulsa. The archive, which contains over 6,000 items of Dylan related writings, recordings and memorabilia, will be housed at TU’s Helmerich Center for American Research on the Gilcrease Museum campus. For Dylan fans and scholars, it’s a dream come true. The archive includes never-before-seen handwritten manuscripts, film, video and even some unrecorded song lyrics and chords, all of which will shine a new light on the man and his music.
Last month, Tulsa had its first glimpse of what is just the tip of the archival iceberg with a “Dylan on Film” series, which included screenings of landmark Dylan documentaries by Martin Scorsese and DA Pennebaker at Tulsa’s Circle Cinema and a photo exhibit that continues through the end of October at the Zarrow Center in the Brady Arts District.
Archive curator, Michael Chaiken, is the guardian of this vast treasure trove of all things Dylan. A film fanatic who was an English major at Philadelphia’s Temple University, Chaiken didn’t set out to be in the archive business. His passion for film and a series of serendipitous events led to friendships with filmmaker Albert Maysles, author Norman Mailer and the award-winning documentary filmmaking team of DA Pennebaker and his wife Chris Hegedus. Pennebaker wrote and directed the critically acclaimed Dont Look Back, a movie chronicling Dylan’s 1965 tour of England.
Chaiken eventually helped each organize their collections of papers and films, which led to a working relationship with rare book dealer and archive appraiser Glenn Horowitz. As it turned out, not only was Horowitz the agent for the Woody Guthrie Archive, which was purchased and moved to Tulsa by George Kaiser Family Foundation in 2013, but he was also the agent for the Bob Dylan Archive.
Fast forward a few years, and Chaiken finds himself curator of the Dylan archive, splitting his time between his home in New York City and his apartment in the Brady Arts District. He’s overseeing the transfer of the Dylan archive to its new home in Tulsa as well as creating the infrastructure to contain and access it and the events to showcase its materials. It’s a dream job for this film aficionado, music lover and scholar – and he’s grateful for the opportunity.
“I didn’t go to school to get a degree in archiving,” Chaiken commented. “It was more a matter of knowledge of the material and maybe just experience. I’m very lucky in that respect. I don’t take any of that for granted, either. I’m really fortunate that I’ve been able to continue to do this, and that it’s moved in this direction and I’m working with the Kaiser people and the people in Bob’s office. It’s really a great group of people, so I feel really lucky that it went the way it did.”
While Chaiken is hard-pressed to name just one thing in the archive about which he is most excited, he is hugely impressed by the extent and depth of the material itself.
“Thinking back when I was first introduced to the papers, and I saw just how expansive it was, just seeing the early manuscripts of songs that, and I’m sure I’m not unique in this, that for millions of people have become part of our culture in the same way as our national anthem or something like that. ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ is kind of like the under ground national anthem,” he laughed. “Seeing the original working papers for these songs is just amazing to me. My gosh, at some point in time, Bob sat at a typewriter and punched this stuff out.”
According to Chaiken, Dylan was a ruthless self-editor. The Archive is full of lyrics and manuscripts that, perhaps, give some insight into the musician’s approach to his writing.
“You get some sense of what his working life was like and what his process was like,” Chaiken explained. “He was just constantly writing, and so when it came time to record a new record, I think he would just go back to his cache and say, ‘let’s try to cut this one. Let’s try to do this one.’ It wasn’t like he was writing specifically for a record. I think he kept stuff as grist for his mill. Some of the songs might have been started for one period and ended up being recorded years later on another record, so he was always kind of reworking and seeing what fit and revising, so that was really amazing just to see those original manuscripts.”
Of course, Chaiken is thrilled with the amount of film contained in the collection.
“The other thing that just floored me was the amount of film material. The Dylan Archive is non traditional in the sense that it’s maybe half paper and then it’s half his studio recordings, his master tapes, and concert recordings,” he explained. “All this incredible beautiful film material, a lot of which had never really been seen publically.”
Eventually, some of this material will be on public display and much of it accessible to researchers and scholars.
“It’s certainly going to turn a lot of Dylan scholarship on its head, that’s for sure, because nobody knew that this archive existed,” Chaiken noted. “So in the dozens of books that have been written about Bob and his music, nobody has had any real access to Bob’s own archive, so that is going to change the nature of Dylan scholarship moving forward.”
Chaiken is very pleased by Tulsa’s response to the archive.
“I’ve been back and forth now between New York and Tulsa a little over six months, and the thing I’m most struck by is just the enthusiasm that people seem to have…My sense is there seems to be a lot of new energy or something happening in Tulsa, and it seems like it’s been happening now for the past few years,” he observed. “It feels like the Dylan Archive being here is going to be a huge push to keep that momentum and that energy going.”
For Chaiken, working to organize and share this material is not only a job, it’s a way of showing his gratitude for the art, music, and film that has been a large part of his own life.
“I thought about it when I was working with Maysles, or with Mailer or Pennebaker. It’s kind of a debt,” he explained. “It’s my own way of saying thank you. It’s like a debt of gratitude. This stuff has meant a lot to me. It’s a privilege to be able to dig into it and to see all the different tendrils, all the different iterations of things and how that stuff has come together, and then give it a place where other people will have the opportunity to come to it. I have a lot of respect for the work, so really that’s a big part of it, too.”