Mark Davidson, a music historian and scholar who has made his own music for years, is director of archives and exhibits at Tulsa’s brand new Bob Dylan Center. The aim is to inspire any visitor to be more creative in their own lives. Davidson is the perfect choice, even if he prefers not to wear white gloves.
A word of warning to all potential counterfeiters of “Authentic Bob Dylan Words”: Don’t let Mark Davidson see them.
After all, Davidson spends a lot of time studying Dylan’s world, including the singer’s own scribbled or typed lyrics. Davidson can spot a fake from a mile away, including a case where a forger apparently used ‘some kind of computer program’ to mimic the quirks of Dylan’s Royal Caravan typewriter he used in the mid-’60s .
“But there are later manuscripts in the 80s where Dylan could have used the exact same typewriter, which is curious to me. And I want to know if he did,” Davidson reflects. “But I don’t have a phone Bob to ask.”
Davidson, 46, is Director of Archives and Exhibits and Curator of the Bob Dylan Archives which is part of the Bob Dylan Center of Tulsa, which opened to the public on May 10 and promises to make Tulsa the new world headquarters of Dylanology. (Already music fans and scholars are booking their first trips to Oklahoma.) Davidson has the same role at the Woody Guthrie Center, which opened two doors in 2013. The impetus was the acquisition of the Dylan Archive, lured to Tulsa by the George Kaiser Family Foundation in 2016 (the estimated $20 million also played a role). This analog/digital “living archive” of a still active artist is intended for scholars and researchers. “It’s vast and almost immeasurable”, as Davidson describes it, comprising hundreds of thousands of tapes, film reels, photos, letters, lyrics, notebooks, paintings, programs – all of which are daily topics for the role of Davidson.
“My knowledge of Dylan is increasing 150% per week,” Davidson calculated.
Davidson, a Dylan fan but not a full-fledged “Dylan fanatic,” has a doctorate in musicology and a second master’s degree in library science. In 2017, while living in Austin, he saw the job posting pop up and immediately applied. He’s been working there ever since, long before his public museum opened in May.
“It’s absolutely a dream job,” he admitted. “There are times when it’s like, ‘oh my God, I’ve got the manuscript for one of the most important songs from one of the most important songwriters to ever exist.'”
Sometimes it’s the accidental discoveries that matter most. Once, while rummaging through an unopened bag of fan mail from 1966, he “saw a letter with a postmark from Vietnam.” He opened it to find a letter from an American soldier in the Vietnam War who had heard “Blowin’ in the Wind” after seeing so many friends die and felt compelled to write Dylan. “It was incredibly powerful.” It is now visible in the center.
Davidson’s day-to-day can also consist of less glamorous tasks, such as “taking care of the collections, dealing with the objects, making sure they are safe”. For example, while working with Dylan’s most prolific biographer – British writer Clinton Heylin – a notable aspect was dealing with the difference between the margins of US and UK paper sizes.
The archives are only part of the 29,000 square foot center. His public galleries opened in Tulsa’s booming arts district, just north of downtown. Inside, visitors pass through a massive iron gate welded by Dylan for the site, then see an immersive film narrated in Dylan’s voice and walk through a timeline of his career, capped off by displays from the 2021 webcast Shadow Realm show/movie. The production and evolution of six Dylan songs are also chartered, starting with the 1964 song “Chimes of Freedom”, the oldest manuscript in the archives (so far).
Davidson played a vital role in crafting it all, including working with 59 Productions (which created the stunning multimedia exhibit “Bowie Is” in 2013). Yes, you can see the tambourine that inspired ‘Tambourine Man’ and the leather jacket Dylan wore at the iconic 1965 Newport Folk Festival, but the exhibits are not just there to be amazed.
“We hope to inspire people to write something, to do something here,” Davidson said. “We’re not consciously trying to be a Hard Rock Cafe, or anything like that.”
Putting it all together – on time – was “a lot of work, a lot of responsibility” and Davidson hasn’t had a chance to breathe yet. (Some tweaks were happening right up to opening day.) He likens it to writing his 877-page folk music thesis, which resulted in “so many nervous breakdowns.” But he found time to have a little fun with Dylan die-hards by leaving intentional “Easter eggs” in the gallery space, like a clip from a 1980 San Francisco performance filmed on the sly by collector Bill Pagel who captured guitarist Mike Bloomfield’s last appearance before his death. (Seriously, Dylan freaks out over stuff like that.)
But the big question for any archivist, of course, concerns something else.
“The white glove thing? Well, most archivists argue that white gloves aren’t the answer. I tend to sit in this camp. And that’s because of the potential damage that hangs around with them,” Davidson said. “However, I have half a dozen pairs right behind me.”
Robert Reid, who has traveled and written about the world for over 20 years, is now back in his native Oklahoma to produce/host @OETAOK America Gallery on PBS. His latest project on the Dylan Center aired on June 2.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled Bill Pagel’s name.