Three Questions about the TU Institute for Bob Dylan Studies

Want to learn a little bit more about the TU Institute for Bob Dylan Studies? The initiative’s new directors Sean Latham and Brian Hosmer take a moment to answer some questions about its mission and its plans for the future.

What do you see as the driving mission behind the Institute?

SL: At the most basic level, we want to support and share world-class research on Dylan’s life, work, and legacy. The Bob Dylan Archive itself is vast, and a huge amount of research can now be done on individual songs as well as the larger creative processes that led to bursts of invention and beauty across some five decades of work. These materials, however, are more than just a testament to the singularity of Dylan’s genius. They also open new perspectives onto art, culture, and politics through songs now woven inseparably through the pain, confusion, and triumphs of the twentieth and now twenty-first centuries.

BH: Research institutes define their mission in several broad ways. Some focus on policy questions, while others look at historical eras, cultural movements, and scientific discovery. Some coalesce around particularly rich collections. In each case, research institutes nurture inquiry. We find motivation in Dylan’s work through materials housed at The Bob Dylan Archive. But more than that, we see Dylan’s legacy as larger than song lyrics, recordings, and associated objects documenting his life. Scholarship is about finding deeper meaning embedded in discrete materials, and Dylan, once celebrated as “the voice of a generation” provides an opportunity for us to think not only about those times but critical aspects of American culture, politics, and art.

What does the Institute mean for Tulsa, OK? How does it tie in with other local institutes, points of interest, or organizations?

BH: Bob Dylan referenced the Woody Guthrie Center as one reason to relocate his archive to Tulsa. When he first visited the Woody Guthrie Center, Dylan asked to see two doors salvaged from Greystone Hospital, the very place where the young songwriter met his idol decades ago. Though a powerful image, and memory, it captures just one aspect of a much larger confluence of institutions, organizations, and cultural currents operating here in Tulsa. The city is home to a vibrant arts community, an organic music scene with deep historical roots, iconic venues like Cain’s Ballroom and Leon Russell’s Church Studio, a host of Art Deco architectural treasures, and premier collections of Western and Native American fine art housed at the Gilcrease and Philbrook Museums. Institutions, organizations, and a generous philanthropic community support the arts and humanities, and older venues are now being joined by the Helmerich Center for American Research, Tulsa Artist Fellowship, and OKPop, a new museum rising from the ground just opposite Cain’s Ballroom.

SL: Dylan’s work is important, in part, because it uses lyrics and music to open up some big questions about what it means to be human, about how love heals or hurts, and about the challenges of making our way through a damaged world. One of his most iconic songs, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” consists of nothing but nine open-ended questions about peace, maturity, and suffering. These questions are not unique to Dylan and instead resonate across all the fields we associate with the arts and humanities, from literature and philosophy to religion and history. Part of our mission at the Institute, then, is to use Dylan’s ability to pose these questions in sharp and often shocking ways in order to explore the chaotic process of becoming human. Such a project is, by its nature, messy, argumentative, collaborative, and fundamentally open-ended.

What does the Institute mean for scholars? How might it change the study of Dylan?  Of popular culture more generally?

SL: An archive like this is filled with surprise and delight. We have a chance now to see how Dylan made his masterpieces—as well as his failures and false starts. Thanks to the Bootleg series, we’ve already had a glimpse of this. It’s a genuine shock, for example, to hear the iconic song “Like a Rolling Stone” performed as a waltz or to see the ways in which “Maggie’s Farm” appears to have cohered on the page. Just as significantly, however, archives allow us to understand how art gets made and to understand how one arrangement of words can be dull, while another sparkles with genius. Seen this way, a close examination of Dylan’s work gives us the tools to better understand the artfulness and energy that abounds in all kinds of popular music. Thus, although our focus will be on Dylan, we also believe the work we generate and support will resonate far more broadly across the study and teaching of American culture.

BH: One is tempted to answer that question flippantly, as in “we don’t know.” But that’s the point. Over time, we can catalogue items and provide finding aids and guidance for researchers. We can identify and display gems like the leather jacket Dylan wore at Newport when he changed the direction of folk and rock music. But the peculiar alchemy of scholarship resides in the minds and hearts of researchers. Scholars analyze and interpret, creating new narratives and novel ways of understanding. That is what we expect to happen. As they carry their own insights to the archives, researchers will find new ways of thinking about Dylan’s work. They also will prompt us to reconsider American history and culture by sifting through, thinking about, and rearranging the pieces of creative life.

Brian Hosmer holds the H.G. Barnard Chair in Western American History at the University of Tulsa. A specialist in Native American History, he has written or edited five books, most recently Tribal Worlds: Critical Studies in American Indian Nation-Building. Hosmer organized the inaugural Woody Guthrie Symposium in 2012, and an anniversary conference in 2016.

Sean Latham is the Walter Endowed Chair of English at the University of Tulsa and the author or editor of eight books on topics in modern literature and culture including Am I a Snob? and The Art of Scandal.