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Tulsa's new Bob Dylan Center wows Northland fans

Members of Duluth's Armory Arts and Music Center board traveled to Oklahoma for this week's official opening.

A group of six older white people stand to pose for a photo against a brick wall. Two have shirts with the Duluth Armory logo, and one wears a shirt reading HIBBING DULUTH PROJECT.
Among the fans who gathered in Tulsa for this week's opening of the Bob Dylan Center were, from left to right, Carolyn Sundquist, Mitch Blank, Susan Phillips, Mary Ostman, Gene LaFond and Nelson French.
Contributed / Carolyn Sundquist
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DULUTH — "As we're talking to people, and we introduce ourselves as from Duluth, these are people from all over the country and some internationally, and they say, 'Duluth! The Armory! Oh my gosh!'"

Carolyn Sundquist was speaking by Zoom from Tulsa, just hours after experiencing the official opening of the Bob Dylan Center. She was joined on the call by several other Northlanders and a major Dylan collector based in New York, all of them buzzing with excitement after seeing the center's elaborate displays.

All the Dylan fans Sundquist met in Tulsa know about the musician's Minnesota upbringing, she said, and specifically about the profound impact of a Buddy Holly performance Dylan attended at Duluth's Armory in 1959.

"They all know the story," said Sundquist. "We do not have to explain anything, and many of them have made a pilgrimage to see the Armory."

The Armory board was well-represented among Minnesotans in Tulsa, as its members were curious to see how Dylan's connections to that building and to the Northland generally would be represented — as well as to draw inspiration for their own space.

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"We wanted to see how the center was interpreting Dylan's creativity," said Sundquist, one of four Armory board members who traveled to Tulsa. "One of the pieces that we have planned for our restored Armory that will be done in a couple of years, thanks to working with our developer, George Sherman, is what we're calling the North Country Creative Center."

The Duluth Armory Arts and Music Center
In 2021 the Duluth Armory Arts and Music Center announced a partnership agreement with Sherman Associates to rehabilitate and develop the historic building.
Jed Carlson / File / Superior Telegram

Duluthians visiting Tulsa's Bob Dylan Center, which is now open to the public, would feel "a sense of pride, a sense of amazement," said Armory board member Nelson French. "Northern Minnesotans would feel that pride, that something so great and grandiose, but yet humble, emerged from the North Country."

"Because it goes chronologically through Dylan's history up until the present, the first few panels are devoted solely to Minnesota roots," said Sundquist. With respect specifically to the Holly show Dylan saw at the Armory, "the original promotional poster is there."

The center is located in Tulsa owing to Dylan's 2016 decision to sell his voluminous personal archives to the University of Tulsa and the George Kaiser Foundation for an undisclosed amount estimated by the New York Times to be $15-20 million. The foundation, which later bought the university's share and is now the archives' sole owner, subsequently spent another $10 million to build the new center for the archives' storage and display.

The center shares a building with a similar facility devoted to Dylan's musical hero Woody Guthrie — a major factor in Dylan's decision to let his archives land in Tulsa. "It's typical of Bob's humility to have it there next to Woody Guthrie's museum, because that's where it started for him," said Gene LaFond, a Silver Bay musician.

Two doors featuring image of Bob Dylan with the words SOMETHING IS HAPPENING HERE
The doors to the Bob Dylan Center feature lyrics from the artist's 1965 song, "Ballad of a Thin Man."
Contributed / Carolyn Sundquist

LaFond has known Dylan personally since 1975, often joining Dylan on tour in the 1970s and '80s along with a mutual friend and fellow artist, the late Larry Kegan. "It was just unbelievable and changed my life in so many ways," said LaFond. "I can walk into the Dylan Center and it just brings me back to all those times, and it's just wonderful."

Mitch Blank, the New York collector, was sharing a Zoom screen with another major Dylan collector: Hibbing's Bill Pagel, who owns literally the biggest Dylan collectibles, his two childhood houses in Duluth and Hibbing.

"I'd say 80% of what we're viewing at this point is coming from the Bob Dylan archives," estimated Blank about the Dylan Center's exhibits. The rest is from other collections, including his own. "I'm very proud of having my program from the 1965 Newport Folk Festival now living in a glass box with Bob Dylan's leather jacket from Newport."

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Blank, who has visited Duluth's Armory and is well-acquainted with the Northland's Dylan fan community, said the very existence of the Dylan Center is helping collectors like himself to "coax and convince people to share things that they're holding on to, because suddenly we have a home to put it in."

Photograph of a series of informational panels at the Bob Dylan Center, featuring posters and photos under the heading BOB DYLAN INVENTS HIMSELF with the dates 1941-1960.
A series of panels at the Bob Dylan Center shows images and interpretive text about the artist's Minnesota upbringing.
Contributed / Nelson French

Among the material on display is film Pagel personally shot in San Francisco in 1980, showing Dylan playing with guitarist Michael Bloomfield — famed for playing with Dylan on record and in live performances including the historic 1965 Newport show.

"It's the last footage ever shot of Michael Bloomfield," said Pagel. "He died two months after I shot the film."

"They've done a magnificent job in housing all the objects and historical photos and film, and making it presentable," said Blank. "It's really unimaginable what they've done."

Though the center is full of physical objects such as notebooks, fan mail, and a matchbook from the 10 O'clock Scholar — a long-gone Minneapolis coffee shop Dylan frequented during his brief stint as a student at the University of Minnesota — Pagel said there's also a treasure trove of archival media from Dylan's personal collection.

"There were some home movies that (Dylan's manager) Al Grossman had of Bob up in Woodstock," New York, in 1964, said Pagel. "Bob offstage, relaxed, filling up his motorcycle with gas at 17 cents a gallon. Things that nobody's ever seen before."

The Minnesota visitors appreciated Tulsa in general, they said, and specifically the work the city has done to address the city's history of racial violence.

"We've been very impressed with how they've addressed the Black Wall Street, Greenwood race massacre," said Sundquist. "They have a recently opened museum that just does a fabulous job with interpreting that whole incident, and they start with going way back in history, interpreting the roots of white supremacy."

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That work complements Dylan's own history of civil rights advocacy, said French. "People say, well, why Tulsa? All of a sudden it comes pouring out why Tulsa for this center. In addition to the Woody (Guthrie Center), there's a lot of other threads here that relate to Bob's story and his global interest in peace and humility."

"Girl From the North Country," incorporating 20 Dylan songs, will play at the Orpheum Theatre in fall 2023.

Still, the Minnesotans were gratified to see that although the center is in Tulsa, Dylan's Minnesota history is well-represented — not only through panels and interviews touching on his Northland youth, but also through artifacts like the guitar Kevin Odegard played on the Minneapolis sessions for Dylan's album "Blood on the Tracks" in 1974.

While in Tulsa, said French, the group "hosted a little Minnesota night" for a gathering of friends, with LaFond performing on a guitar he brought to Dylan's legendary Rolling Thunder Revue tour in the '70s. Footage of Dylan and Kegan playing a jam session with that guitar in the back of Kegan's van, while LaFond drove, showed up in Martin Scorsese's 2019 documentary about the tour.

"Bob saved that footage for, what, 47 years?" said LaFond. "I know there's got to be more film, because we did several different things in front of the camera just for fun, and I know it's in the archives."

Following their Tulsa visit, the Northlanders indicated they're excited to continue working to preserve and celebrate Dylan's legacy in Minnesota. Blank, preparing to head back to New York, offered encouragement.

There's an "international hunger for the musical archaeology you're preserving, because there's a story there that everybody wants to know about," he said to the Armory board members. "There are a lot of Buddy Holly fans, there are a lot of Bob Dylan fans all over the world, and every one of them, if they know what you're doing, will honor you for doing it."

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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