By August Edwards
“I can see why this place has only 4.9 stars on Google,” a balding older guy says, a woman nodding beside him.
“Well, what’s on display now is less than 1% of the archives we have, so it’s going to be changing,” a tall man—presumably some sort of manager—says, not quite defensively, but strongly.
I hear this exchange as soon as I walk into the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It’s a Thursday afternoon and it’s a hundred degrees—I walked a half an hour from where I was at to get to the new exhibit, sweating hard and taking a moment to adjust to the shock of white walls and harsh air conditioning.
A staff member gives me a pair of headphones and an iPod—the iPod is meant to be held at “touchpoints” throughout the exhibit to enhance the viewing by playing song recordings and interviews.
The first feature is an immersive Dylan experience; videos of him play on three walls, his voice floating all around. The adjoining room chronologizes Dylan’s life, from ‘41 to present day. As Dylan is living, I imagine that it’s within the Center’s design to be ever-changing. This aligns with the explosion of immersive art experiences that’s happening, seen in both transient displays (the Van Gogh Exhibition) and stationary ones (Meow Wolf).
In the middle of the room, there are six pillars featuring songs throughout different phases of Dylan’s musical career, which has traveled from a broad (folk) lens to an introspective lens and back. A protest icon early on, he wouldn’t be nailed down to that for long. In fact, he was denounced by the Communist Party for not being a true folk artist. Unlike his precursors—Guthrie and Pete Seeger—he remained comparatively “apolitical” (Seeger was once even a member of the Communist Party; Guthrie was a serious advocate and even wrote a column in a communist magazine).
Photos by Jon Edwards
In an interesting historical writeup about Dylan and the Communist Party, I found this: “Far from being the country hick from Hibbing, Dylan was a ruthless user of everyone who could further his career…He soaked up everything that could be used later, nicknamed the ‘sponge’ for his merciless theft of anything he could use musically: ideas, songs, and arrangements. He still attempts to justify this by saying he was a ‘musical expeditionary.’”
Of course, all art is political, and despite Dylan’s proclivity to remain solitary, he’s fought for race and class equality in remarkable ways.
On the center’s Tulsan location, Dylan told Vanity Fair, “There’s more vibrations on the coasts, for sure. But I’m from Minnesota and I like the casual hum of the heartland.” This is all likely true, and just one small part of the bigger picture.
Woody Guthrie was born and raised in a small town in Oklahoma in 1912. Not long after what would have been his 100th year on earth, the Woody Guthrie Center opened its doors in Tulsa (right across the street from Guthrie Green, a park that opened a year prior). In death, Guthrie has been remembered as a total saint. The reality is that when he was active, all his views made him an ostracized individual.
Maybe things soften so much over time that they actually disintegrate. I think this happens quite a bit with good rock music, too. It’s inherently meant to oppose the mainstream, but it’s so good that some of it makes it through—and, worst case scenario, what lives on can be watered down and devoid of original meaning.
I visited the Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie Centers three days before Roe v. Wade was overturned after 50 years of aiding access to safe abortions in the US. In the Guthrie Center, “This Land is Your Land” played softly on repeat for the duration of my time there. I watched a video of Pete Seeger singing the song with a group of kids, which moved me to tears.
Driving across the country, putting names to rivers and watching where the landscape turns from green to brown and back, it’s incredibly easy to fully believe that this land is our land. However, this is just not true, it has never been true, and sometimes I believe it won’t ever be true.
Most days that’s where my mind goes—disheartenment. Like the verse in “This Land is Your Land:” “In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people / By the relief office I seen my people / As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking / Is this land made for you and me?”
I flip between that and reveling in the undeniable beauty of certain things. Like the colossal tractors that drive the roads of Dyess, Arkansas. Or seeing Pete Seeger’s banjo. There’s this verse later on in “This Land is Your Land:” “Nobody living can ever stop me / As I go walking that freedom highway / Nobody living can ever make me turn back / This land was made for you and me.”
It feels like we’ve always been fighting the same fight. That’s why Allen Ginsberg’s Howl feels so relatable when you read it now. It’s why punk rock just feels true.
In summation, the Bob Dylan Center only has 4.9 stars on google, but I give my experience in Tulsa a fuckin 5 out of 5, and by the way the Louvre only has 4.7 stars on google.