A new show at the Skirball Cultural Center explores the singer's
personal history and his status as an American icon.
By RICHARD CHANG
February 9, 2008
Many of us have seen Martin Scorsese's award-winning Bob Dylan
documentary "No Direction Home."
We've heard Dylan's latest album, "Modern Times," and most likely
seen him in concert. He's got that "Never-Ending Tour," after all.
Perhaps we've read "Chronicles: Volume One," Dylan's acclaimed memoir
published in 2004. And some of us have even seen Todd Haynes'
strange, schizophrenic biopic, "I'm Not There."
So what else new is there to say about Bob Dylan?
Nearly a whole museum's worth of stuff, apparently. At least if
you're the Skirball Cultural Center.
Starting this weekend, the Los Angeles institution that explores
Jewish heritage and its connections with American culture is
presenting "Bob Dylan's American Journey, 1956-1966."
It's a multimedia exhibition that features old photographs,
handwritten song lyrics, rare recordings, performance and interview
footage and more than 150 historical artifacts. The exhibit was
originally created by the Experience Music Project in Seattle in
2004, a year before the Scorsese documentary was released. The show
has traveled to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio,
and the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis.
"Bob Dylan's American Journey" showcases some extremely rare personal
items, such as Dylan's high school yearbook, his cherished copy of
Woody Guthrie's autobiography "Bound for Glory," a recording of
Dylan's first concert at Carnegie Chapter Hall, and a letter to Joan
Baez's mother in which he pretends to be the folk singer herself.
"It's incredible how this 15-year-old Jewish kid turns into folk
icon, then into rock star," said Jasen Emmons, curator of this
exhibit and curatorial director at the Experience Music Project.
"He recorded seven albums within a five-year period. It's pretty
astonishing. There are enduring things about Dylan that pervade his
persona. But he remains somewhat elusive. People feel like they don't
quite know him. People are still grasping the forces that shaped him.
Some can only see him on a pedestal. I think this exhibit humanizes
him. There are a number of things we have in the exhibit for viewers
to really see him as a human, and an emerging artist."
In addition to the vintage acoustic guitars, harmonicas and personal
memorabilia, "Bob Dylan's American Journey" includes a historical
timeline that puts the singer/songwriter in the context of key
moments in 20th century American history: the Cuban missile crisis,
President Kennedy's assassination, the Vietnam War draft. We also see
him in relation to his musical peers and heroes – from Guthrie and
Odetta to Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger and the Beatles.
The exhibition also offers listening stations, where one can hear
tracks from all his albums from 1961 to 1966 – from his modest,
self-titled debut to the wild, groundbreaking double album "Blonde on Blonde."
The Skirball has added an interactive element to the show, offering
visitors a chance to play keyboards and sing along with Dylan songs;
jam on various electric guitars; play the drums to "Sooner or Later
(One of Us Must Know)"; and mix elements of that song on a console.
"I think it's really great," said Emmons, who had some input in this
new participatory gallery. "This is something we do more and more of
now, with more recent exhibits. We want to give a more hands-on
understanding to know what it's like to create music."
DYLAN AS AMERICAN ICON
Dylan was born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minn., in May 1941.
He grew up in the small town of Hibbing, admiring James Dean and
dreaming of playing in Little Richard's band.
As he grew older, he traveled around the States, attended the
University of Minnesota, then wound up in the New York City
folk-music scene. From there, he catapulted to national stardom.
By 1963, observers in the press were calling him the "voice of a generation."
"It's something that he at least claimed, a title that he didn't
want," said John Ibson, professor of American studies at Cal State
Fullerton. Ibson has taught a class on 1960s America and often
includes a week on Dylan. "It's a problem – to take any artist too literally."
Ibson recalls hearing his first Dylan album when he was an
undergraduate in the 1960s. "I'd never heard music like that before.
There wasn't anyone who was reaching any kind of popular audience at
all who was singing that kind of content. … It was intellectually
interesting; it represented something different. It had a social conscience."
The professor says his young students are still fascinated with
Dylan, particularly the singer's 1961-66 period.
"It's very interesting to me, how popular he's remained," Ibson said.
"It's remarkable. There are very few pop culture figures who maintain
the status he does."
Exhibit curator Emmons says Dylan's iconic status is due to a handful
of factors. First, he was truly talented with the guitar, harmonica
and with his lyrics. Second, he "blew open the idea of what you could
write about in a pop song – what was allowable, what was possible."
With his nasal voice and somewhat limited range, Dylan played the
everyman role, proving that anybody could sing successfully. "It gave
hope to so many singer/songwriters," Emmons said.
Furthermore, he was extremely determined and wanted the public
spotlight. And, as Dylan photographer Daniel Kramer said in a 2001
interview with the Register, "He was the right person at the right time."
BUILDING AN IDENTITY
Even though he resisted monikers such as the "voice of a generation,"
Dylan participated – actively and tacitly – in the building of his
reputation and the construction of his identity.
He toured with popular folk singer Baez and allowed other artists to
cover his songs and carry them up the pop charts. In 1963, he
performed at the march on Washington, D.C., where Martin Luther King
Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.
The Skirball exhibit provides film outtakes and several revealing
interviews with musicians and colleagues who knew Dylan well. The
subjects recall touchstone moments, such as Dylan's 1965 concert at
the Newport Folk Festival, where his electric performance caused an
uproar and generated a number of boos. In many ways, that
controversial concert reaffirmed his mystique and cemented his
reputation for rebellion.
"Bob Dylan's American Journey" also includes newspaper clippings on
the singer's 1966 motorcycle accident. Dylan didn't bother to explain
what happened and retreated to his home in Woodstock, N.Y. That only
fueled speculation in the press about what occurred and added another
layer to his mystique.
Of course, one can't ignore the music. It has stood the test of time,
and the Skirball show offers plenty of opportunities to listen to
Dylan's eloquent songs. The lyrics to a number of them are printed on
"There's countless musicians who, nowadays, who will attest to the
great influence that Dylan had on them," Ibson said. "When you look
at the range that Dylan had, the way he clearly tapped into something
– he's an absolute talent."
In conjunction with the exhibit, the Skirball is presenting a number
of programs, including lectures, a film series and live music
concerts. Events are planned through June 8, when the show closes.
See www.skirball.org for details.
Contact the writer: 714-796-6026 or firstname.lastname@example.org