The Daily Heller: Bob Dylan’s Back Pages

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Bob Dylan: Mixing Up the Medicine (Callaway Arts & Entertainment) is a must-have for your bookshelf or to bestow as a gift. This richly illustrated book is the first in-depth look at the Bob Dylan Archive in Tulsa, OK, featuring more than 1,100 images by 135 photographers, artists and filmmakers (many never before seen by the public), original essays, and lyrics and notes written in Dylan’s own hand. Publisher Nicholas Callaway acquired rights for a portion of the materials from the Bob Dylan Center, and the book was created in collaboration with the Center, and edited and written by Bob Dylan Archive Curator and Director Mark Davidson and archivist and music historian Parker Fishel.

As the primary public venue for the Bob Dylan Archive collection, the Center curates and exhibits a priceless collection of more than 100,000 items spanning Dylan’s career, including manuscripts, notebooks and correspondence; films, videos, photographs and artwork; memorabilia and ephemera; personal documents and effects; unreleased studio and concert recordings; musical instruments and many other elements. In short, a treasure of riches.

Three weeks after ravenously pouring through Mixing Up the Medicine, I solved the problem of what to ask Callaway, Davidson and Fishel.

(Pages and content courtesy Callaway Arts & Entertainment.)

I am sitting at my desk with Dylans iconic face staring back at me on the cover. I know why I want to possess a 608-page book drawing on Dylan’s personal archive, but Nicholas, why did you decide to publish it?
Callaway: The book has been 58 years in the making. In 1966 I first saw Dylan in concert at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia when I was 12, on his way to the U.K. tour that formed the basis for a DA Pennybaker’s doc Don’t Look Back. He has been my North Star as a musical artist ever since.

And why, Mike and Parker, did you two decide to devote your time, intellect and labor to building this archive?
Fishel: Mark and I are both big Bob Dylan fans, so having the privilege of working with his archive is really a dream job. He’s at the top of the mountain, and his archive reflects and embellishes that impression.

Davidson: But Dylan is just a part of our professional lives. I’m the Senior Director of Archives and Exhibitions at the American Song Archives, which includes the Bob Dylan Center and Woody Guthrie Center. Those institutions house the collections of not just Dylan and Guthrie, but Phil Ochs, Cynthia Gooding and many others.

Parker is an independent archivist and curator who runs his own company, Americana Music Productions, which works with artists, estates, record labels, museums and other entities interested in sharing the important stories found in archives.

What are your respective backgrounds in terms of Dylan scholarship?
I’ve been fortunate to assist with several volumes of the Bootleg Series, but this is both my first book and my first book on Bob Dylan. My other published work is on American music, with participation in projects ranging from the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival to obscure jazz pianist Garnet Clarke.

Davidson: I’m a trained musicologist and I wrote my dissertation on folk music collecting in the Depression-era U.S. I’ve contributed essays and presentations to various Dylan books and conferences since coming aboard, but this is also my first book.

How was the archive established and developed?
Davidson: The body of material that Dylan collected over the years is the core of the archive. As we note in our preface [to the book], it’s one of the most remarkable archives in existence that is dedicated to a single artist. Since the Bob Dylan Archive was acquired by the George Kaiser Family Foundation in 2016, the collection has expanded in important ways. There has been the addition of significant pieces, like Bruce Langhorne’s tambourine, which inspired the song “Mr. Tambourine Man.” The archive has also acquired rare recordings, like “The Bailey Tapes,” which contain the first known version of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” And finally, two massive fan collections from preeminent and longtime Dylan collectors Mitch Blank and Bill Pagel are also destined for Tulsa. Through strategic acquisitions, including a set of generous donations, the archive has expanded the stories that can be told about Dylan’s remarkable career.

Does anything produced on or about Dylan require your oversight?
Davidson: The Center maintains access to the Bob Dylan Archive, but Dylan’s work is still administered by his management, Sony Music Entertainment and Universal Music Publishing Group.

What was the process of selection and editing?
Callaway: The Bob Dylan Archive & Bob Dylan Center has a hundred thousand objects in it—manuscripts, lyrics, notebooks, photographs, musical instruments. We worked side-by-side for more than three years with Mark Davidson and Parker Fishel.

What was the input of the designer in such a massive enterprise?
Callaway: I was the creative director, as I had a clear vision of what the book should be, but we assembled a world-class team of designers, editors, researchers, archivists and imaging experts.

My vision was to create a book as a conversation between a vast array of elements, both written and visual, that were in deep conversation with each other, usually in a book, either words or images predominate, and my goal was to have it be a true marriage between the two.

Fishel: I can’t verify whether it’s actually true, but Bob Dylan is often touted as the second-most-written-about American after President Abraham Lincoln, with over 2,000 books dedicated to his life and work. With so many words already written, we thought long and hard about what we could add to that story. Since nearly all of that scholarship and writing on Dylan to date has been produced without access to the Bob Dylan Archive, we decided to focus on that body of materials and what it might reveal.

What emerged was an almost “inside-out” biography, with various albums, songs, tours and other episodes explored through the items that Dylan kept and collected across the years. To do this, we went page-by-page through the contents of the archive, each lyric manuscript, piece of correspondence, notebook, photograph, and other ephemera, to select exemplary and representative items of the archive’s voluminous and rich holdings. This material was supplemented by additional material like film stills, tape boxes, previously unpublished excerpts from the archive, interview outtakes from the documentary “No Direction Home,” and original interviews conducted by the Bob Dylan Center.

Taken together, all of these elements form a prismatic portrait of Dylan’s creative life, revealing themes and connections that cross Dylan’s long and still-evolving career, while also shedding new (and often surprising light) on specific songs, projects and events.

Whose idea was it to include so many different creative voices in the book?
Callaway: The book [team] commissioned 30 different writers and artists to come to the center, pick one artifact and use it as the starting point for an essay or meditation; those essays became our breakouts between the nine chapters that frame the full arc of Dylan’s life.

Davidson: The book had its origins in the years immediately following the arrival of the archive in Tulsa in 2016. Michael Chaiken, the first curator of the Bob Dylan Archive, and Robert Polito, poet and professor at the New School in New York City, began bringing writers, artists and musicians to Tulsa in 2017 to engage with the archive and to do a public program in Tulsa. While here they were asked to choose an item from the archive and to write a short essay about it in a style of their choosing.

The book was initially going to be a collection of these essays, but once we started working with Nicholas Callaway, the scope enlarged immensely. To accommodate Callaway’s vision, Parker and I made the editorial decision to include more voices, expanding on the approach that Todd Haynes took to Dylan in the film I’m Not There. We wanted to include Dylan’s own words, through interviews and excerpts from the archive, as well as those of his collaborators and contemporaries, again taken from the archive as much as possible. This allowed our own authorial voice to be more of a skeleton of a story where others could fill in the detail. We tried to present the available evidence and allow people to make their own interpretations, like the question of what really happened at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.

What is the influence of design on such a massive enterprise?
Davidson: Callaway Arts and Entertainment has been producing books of the highest quality for decades, and they had an immense impact on the design and overall trajectory of the book. It’s in many respects a visual biography, with photographs, manuscripts and other images providing the jumping-off point for illuminating Dylan’s working career as a musician. We all worked very closely day after day, Zoom after Zoom, carefully honing the layout. We would explain how images related to one another and to the larger narrative, and they’d somehow find a way to make it work. It’s a design that reflects the rawness of an archive, but is also somehow very elegant. And their attention to detail was second to none. The intricate tracing of the edges of ripped manuscripts or spiral notebooks just makes those images feel like they jump off the page.

Did Dylan have any input whatsoever?
Callaway: None.

Davidson: This book is the first fully authorized deep dive into the Bob Dylan Archive.

Is the Dylan material at the Tulsa center all there is, or are there other archives in other places?
Callaway: There are several other smaller archives, assembled, primarily, by obsessive collectors, in Hibbing, MN, at the Morgan Library and elsewhere.

Fishel: Obviously no collection is complete, and individual items and other small collections (sometimes of some importance) exist in other institutions or in private hands. There are also wonderful fan collections around the world. But in terms of the size, scope and incredible depth of the Bob Dylan Archive, there is nothing comparable.

What did you learn from this material that you did not know beforehand?
Callaway: I learned that the depth and scope of Dylan’s creative achievement is monumental, even more than I realized from a lifetime of listening and studying.

Fishel: When someone has been creating art at a consistently high level for 60-plus years, and continues to do so, I think we have a tendency to flatten that into words like “genius.” What gets erased is the considerable labor that goes into the act of creating. Dylan himself has talked about songwriting as a mysterious process, and I don’t think the archive does anything to dispel that observation. But the archive does give glimpses into Dylan’s songwriting processes and how those have evolved throughout his career.

In his 60 Minutes interview with Ed Bradley, Dylan speaks of his early songs as being written with a kind of penetrating magic. You can see that—a song nearly fully formed—in the draft of “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” But you can also see different creative processes jostling around in a draft of “Tangled Up in Blue” from one of the pocket notebooks in which Dylan wrote the 1975 album Blood on the Tracks, and still different approaches to writing in a draft for “Tempest” from the 2012 album of the same name. Dylan employs different methods at different times for different reasons, and it’s fascinating to see.

Davidson: The archive reveals the depth of his work ethic from the earliest drafts of “Chimes of Freedom” and the songs from Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited through the songs on Tempest, the last album of original material he worked on prior to the sale of the archive in 2016. We can see that he was a judicious and sometimes malicious editor of his own work and that he would not release material he didn’t feel was finished.

It’s clear that for Dylan, a song isn’t finished with the written word, and that’s sometimes even true of the studio recording. He’s constantly working and reworking the words and music, whether it’s in the studio or in live performance after the song has been released. Just look at the recent approaches he took to his early songs on his most recent album, Shadow Kingdom.

Is it true that Dylan has never visited the Center?
Davidson: Bob Dylan has not visited the Bob Dylan Center, though he did visit the Woody Guthrie Center [next door] several years ago and seemed to enjoy his visit. He hasn’t played a concert in Tulsa since April 2022, and the Center opened in May, so who knows.

There is a lot of art, painting and sculpture that he’s produced. A few of the familiar things (e.g., album art) are in the book. But is this a separate archive altogether?

Fishel: Dylan’s work in the visual arts is maintained independent of the Center. However, Dylan created the ironworks portal to the entryway of the Center, and through generous donations the Center also has the Face Value painting series and a 1968 painting that was Dylan’s first—both currently on display.

What would you say is the ultimate value of having all this material in one place? Is it scholarship, nostalgia, fandom or a bit of all?
Callaway: The value and importance of having the vast majority of such a great artist’s body of work preserved and archived in one location is still rare and of inestimable value for this and future generations. The book is one expression of Andre Malraux’s idea that a book can be the virtual museum, the museum without walls.

Davidson: I think the answer differs based on who you are and where you are coming from in relation to Dylan and his music, but surely scholarship, nostalgia and fandom are three factors that come into play. Whatever the motivations for picking up the book, Parker and I hope that the way the story is presented furthers the mission of the Bob Dylan Center in using Dylan’s work to inspire creativity in us all.

Fishel: As an active artist, Dylan’s music continues to have a profound impact on our culture. Bringing together these elements in a book hopefully sheds new light on the extent of that influence, but there is one crucial limit to the printed page: You can’t hear the music, which Dylan told us in his Nobel Lecture, is the way he thinks of his own work. So that’s where I’d encourage everyone to visit the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa, OK, where visitors can have a rich multimedia experience that is really complementary—and I’d say almost essential—for the full enjoyment of Mixing Up the Medicine.

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