Multimedia exhibition features newly developed interactive gallery that invites visitors to re-mix and re-imagine original Bob Dylan recordings

LOS ANGELES—Few figures in the history of American popular music have attained the status of Bob Dylan (b. 1941). To critical and popular audiences alike, his distinctly American body of work matches the legacies of Walt Whitman, Louis Armstrong and his own early hero, Woody Guthrie.

On view at the Skirball Cultural Center from February 8 through June 8, 2008, Bob Dylan’s American Journey, 1956–1966, organized by Experience Music Project (EMP), is a visual and aural recounting of Dylan’s transformation from rock ‘n’ roll–loving Midwestern teenager to Greenwich Village folk troubadour to the rock star/poet who electrified contemporary songwriting. The exhibition not only illuminates this fertile decade in Dylan’s personal and artistic development, but chronicles a tumultuous period in American history, marked by the Civil Rights and anti-war movements.

Blending interpretive exhibits with cutting-edge interactive technology, Bob Dylan’s American Journey, 1956–1966 features rare and never-before-seen photographs, recordings, performance and interview footage and more than 150 historical artifacts. Highlights include folk musician Bruce Langhorne’s tambourine, the inspiration for Dylan’s song “Mr. Tambourine Man”; Dylan’s cherished copy of Woody Guthrie’s Bound for Glory; a recording of Dylan’s 1961 debut concert at Carnegie Chapter Hall; and a letter Dylan wrote to Joan Baez’s mother in which he masquerades as Baez herself.

The exhibition features many listening and viewing stations. Visitors can hear Dylan recordings, listen to music that influenced Dylan, and tune into songs by artists that reveal Dylan’s widespread influence on their creative output. Viewing stations display rare footage of interviews with Dylan, as well as excerpts from D. A. Pennebaker’s 1965 documentary Dont Look Back and the unreleased film Eat the Document, which recorded Dylan’s 1966 world tour.

The exhibition opened at Experience Music Project|Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame (EMP|SFM) in November 2004 and has since traveled to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Cleveland), the Pierpont Morgan Library (New York) and the Weisman Art Museum (Minneapolis).

At the Skirball, Bob Dylan’s American Journey, 1956–1966 will also offer an opportunity for visitors to experience Dylan recordings firsthand. Developed in association with the Roland Corporation and EMP, the Skirball will present a satellite exhibit, “Interactive Music Experience,” which will invite visitors to simulate playing keyboards, electric v. acoustic guitars, drums and organ, as well as experiment with a mixing console on an authentic Dylan recording. By “playing along” with Dylan songs and operating effects gear, visitors will have a unique experience of Dylan’s music and the creative process.

In conjunction with the exhibition, the Skirball will offer a wide range of adjunct programs. These include a talk by artists John Cohen and Daniel Kramer on photographing Dylan; a poetry reading by Michael McClure; performances by Dylan-influenced singer/songwriters, including indie phenomenon Brett Dennen; a class on the tradition of protest poetry; and a daylong symposium featuring Greil Marcus and other prominent Dylan scholars.

“Robert Zimmerman’s journey from his Jewish origins to a broadened American identity as the legendary Bob Dylan—the torchbearer of an authentic folk music tradition, a trailblazing rock icon and a riveting voice of social conscience—is of special interest to the Skirball Cultural Center, where we explore the connections between Jewish heritage and American democratic ideals,” remarked Robert Kirschner, Director of Exhibitions and Collections. “In many respects, Dylan exemplifies this connection. As George Gershwin absorbed the influence of jazz, Irving Berlin of ragtime, and Leonard Bernstein of the classical tradition, so Dylan absorbed folk and rock and transformed both into an American music of extraordinary force and influence.”

Bob Dylan’s Journey

In 1956, Bobby Zimmerman was a middle-class teenager in small-town Hibbing, Minnesota, who loved James Dean and dreamed of playing in Little Richard’s band. Ten years later, as Bob Dylan, he was “the Voice of his Generation.” That same decade marked a period of startling social change for America, too, with the nation experiencing the final throes of McCarthyism, the Cold War, the dawn of consumer culture, the Civil Rights movement and the emergence of the counterculture. Bob Dylan’s American Journey, 1956–1966 weaves together Dylan’s personal history with that of the nation. As the exhibition’s curator, EMP’s Jasen Emmons, remarked, “We’re trying to show how time and place had an effect on Bob Dylan, and how Bob Dylan had an effect on time and place.”

To portray these intertwined histories, the exhibition provides a detailed timeline and taps numerous resources, among them the Bob Dylan Archives, EMP|SFM’s permanent collection, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, the National Civil Rights Museum and private collectors. Artifacts on view include instruments, handwritten lyrics and letters, posters, handbills, newspaper clippings and album covers. The exhibition also includes listening stations that feature tracks from the seven albums Dylan recorded in this period: Bob Dylan; The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan; The Times They Are A-Changin’; Another Side of Bob Dylan; Bringing It All Back Home; Highway 61 Revisited; and Blonde on Blonde. In addition to selecting songs, visitors can view related images and survey each album’s impact on music criticism and popular opinion.

Bound for Glory (1956–1961)
As a prologue, the exhibition opens with reproductions of 100 seven-inch cover versions of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the song that would become an anthem of the Civil Rights movement. Visitors then launch into the exhibition’s first section, representing the years 1956–1958 and portraying Dylan’s high school years and earliest live gigs through photos, yearbooks and his 22-page essay on The Grapes of Wrath.

Though he spent only one year, 1959–1960, sporadically attending the University of Minnesota, his time in Minneapolis’ Dinkytown exposed Dylan to American folk music. It was here that he first read Woody Guthrie’s Bound for Glory, which would inspire him to move to New York City to meet his hero. A listening station features songs by Guthrie, as well as by some of Dylan’s other early musical influences, including Hank Williams, Little Richard, Odetta and the Carter Family.

The exhibition delves even deeper into Woody Guthrie’s influence on Bob Dylan. Guthrie’s penchant for mixing hardscrabble realism with colorful fantasies gave Dylan a new way to think about songwriting, and his dedication to the common folk helped raise Dylan’s political consciousness. In addition to photographs, song lyrics and illustrations, this section includes Guthrie’s Martin guitar and a T-shirt he wore in his final days at Greystone Park State Hospital.

The exhibition continues with the Greenwich Village folk music scene, focusing on key recording executives Moses Asch and John Hammond; such musicians as Pete Seeger, Carolyn Hester and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, several of whose works are featured at a listening station; and the many New York clubs that became part of folk music history. By the end of 1961, Dylan had given his first professional performances, played harmonica on a Harry Belafonte recording and recorded his debut album, Bob Dylan.

I Have a Dream: 1961–1964
Joan Baez gave Dylan’s career a boost when she began singing his songs and having him perform at her concerts. By the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, they were folk music’s reigning couple. Baez gave Dylan class, one journalist wrote, and he gave her sex appeal.

Dylan was also influenced by girlfriend Suze Rotolo, who introduced him to the works of Lord Byron, Arthur Rimbaud and Bertolt Brecht, all of whose poetry would come to impact Dylan’s lyrics. Rotolo was featured on the cover of his second album, 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, which included the hit “Blowin’ in the Wind.” When folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary covered the song in July 1963, Dylan’s reputation as a songwriter was cemented.

Bob Dylan’s American Journey, 1956–1966 devotes considerable space to the intersection of folk music and politics. Included in the exhibition are news clips, FBI files and memorabilia about Phil Ochs, the Freedom Singers and other key figures, as well as substantial documentation of the Civil Rights movement and the 1963 March on Washington, where Dylan performed and Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Dylan’s 1963 album, The Times They Are A-Changin’, featured passionate political songs, including “With God on Our Side” and “Only a Pawn in Their Game.”

In 1964, Dylan traveled cross-country in the spirit of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, listening to the Beatles on the radio and eventually reaching San Francisco, where the Beat poets greeted him as a peer. Later that year in Greece, he wrote many of the songs for his fourth album, Another Side of Bob Dylan. The album’s more personal and rocking songs disturbed many in the folk community, who feared they were losing their finest topical songwriter.

Don’t Look Back: 1965–1966
With the 1965 album, Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan entered an astounding creative period, changing the sound and feel of 1960s rock. Dylan’s marriage of folk-based storytelling, wildly imaginative lyrics and modernized roots music was unprecedented. These innovations were felt throughout the rock world. The Byrds had a huge hit with “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and Dylan’s influence could be heard in the music of such acts as the Lovin’ Spoonful, Donovan, the Turtles and Cher. Dont Look Back, the D. A. Pennebaker cinéma vérité film of Dylan’s 1965 tour of England, captured Dylan at perhaps his most iconoclastic and exciting.

In the final phase of the exhibition, the legend of Bob Dylan “going electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival is examined. His next album, Highway 61 Revisited, acknowledged his debt to the Delta blues in its title (referencing a road to the South) and featured the six-minute-long “Like a Rolling Stone.” In a newspaper clip, the Beatles acknowledged their admiration for Dylan; they would rise to meet his challenge the following year with their epic album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In 1966, Dylan traveled to Nashville to record the seminal double album Blonde on Blonde, with the city’s finest session players and old friends Robbie Robertson and Al Kooper. Dylan capped this fertile period with personal, insistent songs such as “Visions of Johanna” and “Just Like a Woman.”

By 1966, America was a different place than it was when Dylan first came on the scene in 1961. The counterculture and rock music were in full force, but Dylan was exhausted from non-stop touring and the fame he had so fervently courted. He needed a change, and a motorcycle accident in Woodstock, NY, allowed Dylan to retreat into the comfort of family life. For the next few years, fans and the media would contemplate “the Dylan mystery” and satisfy their hunger for new material with bootleg recordings.

Exhibition-Related Programs

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