Local Current Blog

Bob Dylan reveals vast ‘secret archive,’ to be opened to public

Bob Dylan as seen in a recent music video

In a stunning announcement, a group of Oklahoma institutions has shared news of the acquisition of an enormous private archive maintained by Bob Dylan. Spanning Dylan’s entire career, the archive includes everything from song drafts to personal correspondence to multimedia. The archive is set to be opened to scholars and made available to the public, possibly in a new center to be built next to a Woody Guthrie museum in Tulsa.

The New York Times, which was given access to the archive for an exclusive story on the acquisition, reports that “the archives are deeper and more vast than even most Dylan experts could imagine, promising untold insight into the songwriter’s work.” The Times story includes images of artifacts including working notebooks from the writing of Blood on the Tracks, a telegram from “Peter and Dennis” (as in Fonda and Hopper, corresponding about the use of a Dylan song in Easy Rider), notes from a Blonde on Blonde recording session, and a sketch on hotel stationery.

Perhaps even more sensational than such papers, however, are the hundreds of master tapes that the Oklahoma institutions plan to digitize down to the individual instrumental and vocal tracks, which scholars and visitors may be able to isolate and manipulate as they explore alternate mixes of some of Dylan’s greatest recordings.

The complete archive has been appraised at a value of over $60 million; the Oklahoma buyers, led by the foundation of the billionaire George Kaiser, paid an estimated $15 to $20 million, and the Times speculates that Dylan may take the rest as a tax write-off.

Why Oklahoma — and not New York, or (ahem) Minnesota? The story starts in recent years, when Dylan and his team noticed the soaring values for original manuscripts like the ones Dylan had been quietly collecting in the widely-rumored personal archive for decades. Dylan started to have the material cataloged, and hired rare-book dealer Glenn Horowitz to look for a potential home for the material.

Horowitz had brokered the acquisition of a major Woody Guthrie archive by the Kaiser Family Foundation, and approached the foundation about another music archive of “global significance,” Horowitz said when he first e-mailed Kaiser. The foundation’s director Ken Levit said that told him it had to be something from either the Beatles or Bob Dylan.

In a statement to the Times, Dylan said that he was glad to see his archives find a home next to the Guthrie material — which is now available in a specially-built museum like the one that might be built for Dylan’s archive — as well as near “valuable artifacts from the Native American nations. To me it makes a lot of sense, and it’s a great honor.”

The timetable on when the material will be transferred to Oklahoma from its current undisclosed location and made available to scholars and the public is yet to be determined. In the meantime, Times writer Ben Sisario found himself wondering: who’s next? He called Bruce Springsteen manager Jon Landau, but Landau declined to comment on what’s been stashed away by the Boss, who has a memoir coming out this fall.

Landau seemed to suggest, however, that the scope and importance of Dylan’s meticulous archive might be unique in the world of rock and roll. “Was anybody sitting around worrying about this kind of thing back then?” he asked, rhetorically. “We were living in the era of ‘Hope I die before I get old.'”