Stars and fans alike turn out as Bob Dylan Center opens in Tulsa

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TULSA, OKLA. — "That's my program," said Bill Pagel of Hibbing, America's most obsessive Bob Dylan collector.

"No, that's my program," interjected his Greenwich Village rival Mitch Blank.

They're both right: Pagel's program for Dylan's first London concert and Blank's program for the 1964 Newport Folk Festival share a display case at the Bob Dylan Center, the new museum that opened Tuesday morning in Tulsa.

Offering history, context and priceless keepsakes for casual fans and serious researchers alike, the Dylan Center sheds light on the elusive Minnesota bard but ultimately lets music lovers decide what his songs are all about.

"It's a story you could tell a million ways," said Rock Hall of Famer Elvis Costello, who participated in the opening-week festivities. "The balance is really amazing. Just in terms of the subject, I don't think you could ask for more."

At Tuesday's grand-opening ceremony, the youth orchestra Sistema Tulsa offered an instrumental version of "Blowin' in the Wind" and an acoustic trio delivered "I Shall Be Released" in Cherokee.

U.S. poet laureate Joy Harjo recited an essay called "Tangled" about listening to Dylan and finding her own voice.

"Dylan reminded us in his poem-songs that every one of us has a story," she told a crowd of about 250.

To no one's surprise, Dylan wasn't at the opening. The singer-songwriter, who turns 81 on May 24, didn't even stop by last month when he performed a few blocks away.

There is no explaining Bob Dylan, which is both the mission and the point of the Dylan Center.

With more than 750,000 items in its digital archives — including thousands from Dylan himself — it serves the curious, the casual and the hardcore.

There are film clips of Dylan talking and performing, recordings of songs both well-known and obscure, photographs and manuscripts, letters and Christmas cards, paintings and even a 16-foot metal gate that Dylan — an exhibited sculptor — made to greet visitors once inside the front doors.

Dylan did not stipulate how his personal artifacts could be used, though his manager has "been a confidante on many things," said Steve Jenkins, the building's director.

Why Tulsa?

Of course, this being Dylan, there are the inevitable controversies.

Why is the center in Tulsa?

The short answer: Dylan sold his personal archive to the Tulsa-based George Kaiser Family Foundation in 2016 for a reported $20 million, in part because the foundation had saluted one of Dylan's heroes by establishing the Woody Guthrie Center here.

Is Kaiser — an oilman, banker and philanthropist — a Dylan fan?

"Yes and no," the billionaire told the Star Tribune. "I admire him. I'm a fan of Joan Baez. She's true to her ideals."

Kaiser met Dylan once, in 2016, and found him to be "a modest guy." Dylan was at the Woody Guthrie Center when he was supposed to be in Stockholm accepting the Nobel Prize for literature.

At a cost of another $10 million, the 29,000-square-foot Dylan Center was constructed in a former paper warehouse that also houses the Guthrie museum.

There are two floors of exhibits. Multimedia is used to tell the stories behind six Dylan songs including "Tangled Up in Blue." The center's archive room — open by appointment — is filled with such treasures as four drafts of the mid-1960s manuscript for his prose-poem book "Tarantula."

Hall of Famers in concert

Last week's opening activities attracted the Tulsa elite and Dylan followers, including historian Douglas Brinkley, author Clinton Heylin and collectors Pagel and Blank.

After a gala banquet Thursday for 500 donors, there were three nights of concerts at the historic 98-year-old Cain's Ballroom by Rock Hall of Famers with connections to Dylan.

Mavis Staples was in a spiritual mood with great conviction in her 82-year-old voice, though she didn't much mention Dylan, who once asked for her hand in marriage.

Patti Smith, making her first Tulsa appearance since 1978, was amped for the occasion, giving marvelous performances of three Dylan nuggets — "Boots of Spanish Leather," "Wicked Messenger" and "One Too Many Mornings."

Having substituted for Dylan at his Nobel ceremony, she proclaimed in Tulsa, "Tonight [Bob] ain't here but we are. Just joking. He's every[expletive]where."

Costello got into the spirit, telling lighthearted stories about encounters with Dylan and offering a lovely rendition of the bard's "I Threw It All Away" and a rollicking "Like a Rolling Stone."

All three stars visited the Dylan Center, where Costello curated a jukebox filled with 162 songs by Dylan, his influences and interpreters.

Less famous visitors were impressed, too.

"It has exceeded my expectations and I was optimistic," said Matt Simonsen, 46, of Eden Prairie, who purchased a membership to the center. "It's incredible seeing how the songs started and evolved. In the archives, they had 10 or 12 pages of [changing lyrics for] 'Dignity.' He's a hard worker."

Minneapolis musician Kevin Odegard, who played on Dylan's landmark 1975 album "Blood on the Tracks," was moved by what he saw — including the guitar he used during those sessions.

"Being here renews my hope that great art, photography, sculpture and song still has the power to lift us to a higher plane," he said. "I leave Tulsa better than it found me when I arrived."

Ann Margaret Daniel, a writer and humanities lecturer at the New School in New York City, explored the archives, seeking what Dylanologists consider the crown jewel of the Dylan Center: three pocket-sized notebooks with teeny handwritten lyrics that outline the evolution of "Blood on the Tracks."

"This center is not just about Bob Dylan," she said. "It's about American culture during the years he's been alive. You can buy Clinton Heylin's [Dylan] books here or 'The Grapes of Wrath.'"

The Dylan Center, like Dylan himself, is still evolving. Blank said a semi-truck of his collection will arrive in August from New York City.

"This place is a miracle," Blank said. "When we surreptitiously gathered materials, we were criminals. Now criminals are in a museum."