Inside Bob Dylan's Historic New Tulsa Archive: 'It's an Endless Ocean'

Organizers discuss massive trove of writing, tapes and film spanning iconic songwriter's entire career

Curators discuss a newly acquired Bob Dylan archive in Tulsa, a treasure trove of unreleased music, writing and film. Credit: Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy

Tulsa, Oklahoma, is about to become the center of the Bob Dylan universe. The singer-songwriter has sold a previously unknown treasure trove of 6,000 artifacts from his private collection — including handwritten lyrics, photographs, contracts and private letters alongside video and audio recordings — to the University of Tulsa and the Tulsa-based George Kaiser Family Foundation, and they will be soon be accessible to Dylan scholars from around the world. "There are a lot of books written about Bob Dylan," says Steadman Upham, president of the University of Tulsa. "But there are going to be a whole lot more based on these materials." 

The size and scope of the collection is absolutely staggering. The physical artifacts alone would fill up, at a minimum, two semi-trailer trucks. Amazingly, the collection includes the complete sessions for all of his albums, the vast majority of which have never been heard by the public, along with dozens of professionally filmed shows and so many soundboard concert recordings that Michael Chaiken, the self-described "inaugural curator" of the collection, can't even estimate a number. "I would say hundreds," he says. "If not thousands. By the time the 1970s rolled around, they were recording every show."

The catch is that anyone wishing to access the collection needs to travel to Tulsa. The details are still being worked out, and at this moment only a tiny portion of the collection has reached Oklahoma, but at some point in the near future all of it will be housed at the the Helmerich Center for American Research, a facility at the Gilcrease Museum. Select items will be displayed to the public with the rest under lock and key, though the facility doesn't plan to raise a very high bar when it comes to allowing researchers, scholars and journalists complete access. "I don't think we will be serving the mission of our foundation if that is not contemplated in a very broad way," says Ken Levit, the the executive director of the Kaiser foundation. "It's our goal that the materials be studied, enjoyed and reflected upon."

Per an agreement with the Dylan camp, nobody involved with the collection can discuss dollar figures, but they don't dispute a reported figure of $15 to $20 million. "It was an expensive purchase," says Upham. "But if it was sold singularly, it would have been worth a hundred times more." (For some context, in 2014 Dylan's handwritten lyrics to "Like a Rolling Stone" sold for $2 million.) A story in the New York Times notes that Dylan can claim a huge chunk of the transaction as a charitable donation for tax purposes.

Of particular interest to Dylan scholars will be the handwritten lyrics to songs from his entire career. The collection includes two tiny notebooks from the Blood on the Tracks period, a working manuscript of "Chimes of Freedom" on Waldorf Astoria hotel stationary, a stack of handwritten lyrics to 1989's "Dignity" and a typewritten draft of "Subterranean Homesick Blues" with many lines that didn't make the final version. "It's an endless ocean of writing," says Chaiken, who spent months combing through piles of boxes at Dylan's New York office and offsite storage facilities. "So many people have written about that enigma of Dylan. I don't feel like at any point the mystery was solved by looking at this stuff. But what it did do was bring into relief just how disciplined and serious he was as a writer."

Chaiken has only begun to dip into the hundreds of hours of raw Dylan recording sessions, but he's already come across a completely different version of 1997's Time Out of Mind produced by pianist Jim Dickinson [update: Dickinson denies such a thing exists] and the complete John Wesley Harding sessions. "It's such a mysterious record," he says. "I heard a couple of alternate takes of 'All Along The Watchtower' that were, to me as a fan, just incredible."

The film footage is equally compelling. It includes 30 hours of outtakes from D.A. Pennebaker's 1965 tour documentary Don't Look Back, another 30 hours of footage shot on Dylan's legendary 1966 electric tour, upwards of 50 hours shot on the 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue along with a Toronto stop of Dylan's gospel tour and footage of Dylan, the Band and Tiny Tim goofing around in Woodstock, New York, around the time that work began on The Basement Tapes. "The collection is going to continue to grow," says Chaiken. "As Bob continues to tour, there's going to be more stuff that's added." 

The bulk of the collection chronicles Dylan's musical career, onstage and off, but there are also more personal items like a mid-1960s address book with phone numbers for Nico, Lenny Bruce and Allen Ginsberg, a private letter from George Harrison praising the recently released Nashville Skyline and 1978 postcard from Barbra Streisand thanking Dylan for sending her flowers. 

Dylan's complete recording sessions reside in Iron Mountain, a secret, climate-controlled underground facility, and the University of Tulsa and the Kaiser Foundation are no hurry to move them to Oklahoma, but they are being digitized, and curators plan on making them available to visitors via an offline computer at the Gilcrease Museum. Sony retains the right to release the material to the public via future volumes of the Bootleg Series and other archival packages, but the Tulsa facility will retain ownership of the physical tapes. 

Since there's no other way to experience the collection other than traveling to Tulsa, organizers are hoping it boosts tourism to the area. "That's our greatest hope," says Levit. "Maybe this can finally get us direct flights from New York, Los Angles and London."