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.”