Research

How the U. of Tulsa Landed Bob Dylan’s ‘Secret Archive’

March 04, 2016

Michael Ochs Archives, Getty Images
A 6,000-item collection of documents and other materials from Bob Dylan is finding a home in a state that does not figure prominently in the legendary musician's past. The deal, sealed with the help of the Kaiser Foundation, was more than a year in the making. Above, a 1961 portrait of Dylan in New York City.
Bob Dylan, favorite son of Hibbing, Minn., who made his name in New York City then absconded upstate to Woodstock, who has spent the last three decades bouncing around the country on a "never-ending tour," announced this week that he would leave his material legacy in the care of archivists at the University of Tulsa, in Oklahoma.

Many were surprised by the choice. Oklahoma does not figure prominently in Mr. Dylan’s biography. Other institutions — including the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities — had expressed interest in acquiring the 6,000-item collection of personal papers and other artifacts.

So, how did the University of Tulsa land the coveted archive? The coup was the result of a lengthy courtship that began more than a year ago.

Kenneth J. Levit, executive director of the George Kaiser Family Foundation, a Tulsa-based philanthropic group with ties to the university, remembers getting a call in September 2014 from Glenn Horowitz, a New York-based dealer of manuscripts and other rarities. Mr. Horowitz had read in The New York Times that the daughter of Phil Ochs, another folk singer, was donating Mr. Ochs’s personal papers to the Woody Guthrie Center, a museum and archive in Tulsa established by the Kaiser Foundation.

Several years earlier Mr. Horowitz had helped broker the deal between the foundation and Mr. Guthrie’s family that had sent that legendary folk singer’s manuscripts to Tulsa. Now Mr. Horowitz wanted to discuss another possible deal, involving another folk singer. A big one.

Mr. Dylan’s people had approached the dealer several months earlier to consult about how the collection should be preserved. After taking stock of its contents, Mr. Horowitz suggested that the whole collection be kept intact. "At that moment, all of the conversations I’d had with the folks in Tulsa about why they wanted to do the Guthrie deal sort of flooded back," said Mr. Horowitz.

More Than Memorabilia

The Kaiser Foundation had seen the Guthrie Center as part of an array of projects it has undertaken to revitalize the Tulsa arts scene. The foundation was also bankrolling social projects in the city, such as early-childhood education centers and a treatment-and-rehabilitation program for women facing nonviolent criminal charges.

“You don't just build a little building and stick in Bob's vest he was wearing at Newport in 1965. There really is an an enormously important archive here that scholars are going to want to use.”
Mr. Horowitz saw a potential fit. After calling Mr. Levit, he spent the next nine months or so playing matchmaker as the Kaiser Foundation and the Dylan camp held a series of diplomatic missions in Tulsa and Manhattan.

It became clear that the Kaiser Foundation would need an academic partner, said Mr. Horowitz. "You don’t just build a little building and stick in Bob’s vest he was wearing at Newport in 1965," he said. "There really is an an enormously important archive here that scholars are going to want to use."

Mr. Dylan’s publicist would not comment for this article, but in Mr. Horowitz’s view the preservation of Mr. Dylan’s effects for scholarly study, not just public consumption, was "crucial" to the musician’s representatives. "He would be the last person, I believe, to ever suggest that he’s psychologically involved with the issue of his legacy," he said of Mr. Dylan. "On the other hand, look at what’s been preserved."

What indeed? Early demo tapes. Early drafts of lyrics. Master tapes from recording sessions. Correspondence. Contracts. Concert footage. A wallet. Other miscellany.

Steadman Upham, president of the University of Tulsa, was 16 years old when Mr. Dylan famously "went electric" at the Newport Folk Festival. He has seen the singer perform in concert. But nothing quite compared to stepping into a Manhattan office and seeing the handwritten drafts of "Chimes of Freedom," a song from the 1964 album Another Side of Bob Dylan.

Mr. Upham is not known primarily as a Dylan fan. In higher-education circles, he is known as the well-compensated chief of a second-tier research university with a small student body and a large endowment. Among scholars, Tulsa is recognized for its special collections, which include a large cache of James Joyce rarities and the personal papers of John Ross, the Cherokee chief who led the tribe during its forced relocation to Oklahoma. In 2014 the university opened its Helmerich Center for American Research in an effort to raise its stature as a destination for scholars, especially those studying pioneers and the dispossessed.

The president saw the Dylan archive as a strong addition. After the initial courtship, the university, the foundation, and the Dylan camp spent months hashing out the details.

"There were a lot of lawyers involved," said Mr. Upham, but little doubt that an agreement would be reached. The presence of the nearby Guthrie Center was a key factor, said Mr. Horowitz — not just because of Mr. Dylan’s personal affection for the seminal folk artist, but because the center provided a model for what the Kaiser Foundation and its academic allies were capable of building. Mr. Dylan would follow in his idol’s footsteps one more time.

They settled on a price of somewhere between $15 million and $20 million, which was a fraction of the appraised value. The parties would not elaborate on the details of the transaction, except to say that Kaiser wrote the bigger check. The first batch of items arrived from New York earlier this winter.

Tulsa is already settling into its role as a steward of Mr. Dylan’s legacy. Sean Latham, an English professor at the university, is now teaching an undergraduate course on the musician. On the first day of class, he played a recording of the song "Tangled Up in Blue" for his students. Only two of them recognized it.

The work begins.

Steve Kolowich writes about how colleges are changing, and staying the same, in the digital age. Follow him on Twitter @stevekolowich, or write to him at steve.kolowich@chronicle.com.