University Builds Dylan Collection

Sunday, November 23, 2014
Philadelphia — The question has lingered in song since it was first posed in the 1960s: How many roads must a man walk down — before he becomes the subject of a major university archive devoted to helping researchers discern the meaning of his every move and utterance?

The answer, my friends, is at La Salle University, which runs what it believes to be the nation’s only academic collection focused on songwriter, poet, and troubadour Bob Dylan.

Dylan was in Philadelphia last week to perform three shows at the Academy of Music. It’s doubtful he’ll visit the Life & Work of Bob Dylan Collection, housed in the university’s Connelly Library. Neither he nor his staff has ever made contact with the library. And the stories of Dylan’s indifference to his fame are legendary.

The archive holds loads of Dylaniana — more than 1,000 items, including rare bootleg records, concert posters, fan art, journals, DVDs, and tour T-shirts and programs. “They have hundreds, maybe even thousands, of recordings of Bob that aren’t readily available,” said Mark Sutton, an Australian who this year completed a doctorate on Dylan at the University of Sydney.

Sutton, writer of the tongue-in-cheek, guitar-and-vocal homage I’m a Bigger Dylan Fan Than You, saw Dylan perform 13 times just this year. He visited La Salle on what he called “a Dyl-grimage,” also traveling to see the singer’s old New York City haunts and his hometown in Hibbing, Minn.

The collection holds 80 works of criticism and interpretation of Dylan’s music, 40 books of scores and indexed lyrics, and eight separate periodicals devoted solely to the artist. Its 30 theses include 20 doctoral dissertations from colleges worldwide.

Fans in search of a little light reading before the academy concerts can dive into papers such as “The Alchemy of Individuation: A Case Study of Bob Dylan” and “Folksinger and Beat Poet: The Prophetic Vision of Bob Dylan.”

“There’s some real obscure stuff in there,” said Haddonfield, N.J., author David Kinney, who conducted research at the archive for his book The Dylanologists: Adventures in the Land of Bob.

Kinney was interested in reading dissertations, and amused to find Dylan bootlegs stored in the same secure chamber as the university’s invaluable collection of rare Bibles.

If it seems odd to find a Dylan center at La Salle — the Catholic liberal-arts school in the city’s Logan section — that’s because it is. In fact, it’s odd for any academic institution.

“Rare books and manuscripts (departments) at universities are pretty risk-averse of what might be faddish, so they shy from contemporary collections,” said John Baky, La Salle’s director of libraries.

But the idea of having a Dylan archive at La Salle, he said with no hint of musical irony, “struck a note.”

The school has embraced modern collecting, including the development of a compilation on the Vietnam War.

Dylan is now 73, and in many ways more popular than ever. About 20 years ago, Baky noticed the singer wasn’t disappearing from the culture. If anything, he was getting more attention with each passing year — unusual for musicians, whose careers often flare and fade.

Baky also knew that prices for Dylan-related paraphernalia would only rise. So he began to gather items, accept donations, and buy what he could.

“Dylan, to me, was a cultural phenomenon, and if we didn’t get the material contemporaneously, we were never going to get it,” he said.

Today, hundreds of people connect to the archive via the Internet each year, though perhaps only 10 physically show up. They’re authors, researchers, aficionados.

“It’s an incredible resource of musical material — all the Bob Dylan material is there, including covers of Bob Dylan by other artists,” said La Salle English professor Stephen Smith, who drew on the archive to create a course, “Dylan and the ’60s.”

The class emerged from his interest in the relationship between lyrics and poetry, an intersection familiar to Dylanophiles. “I stayed away from the ‘spokesman for a generation’ stuff,” Smith said. “I don’t know if he reflected what was happening in American society as much as he predicted it.”

Remember, he said, Dylan released Blowin’ in the Wind, which became an antiwar anthem, nearly two years before U.S. troops landed in Vietnam. And in 1969, with the nation riven by the war, he put out a country album, Nashville Skyline.

La Salle does not place a dollar value on the collection. But cost dictates much of what it can afford to add. Prices for sought-after Dylan material have soared, and even the stuff that’s commonly available — original records, signed covers, or art prints — can cost thousands of dollars on auction sites such as eBay.

Weirdly, the Dylan market has in a way worked in reverse. Consider: Beatlemania drove a giant marketing effort that produced dolls, lunch boxes, and plastic guitars. Sales shrank as the band matured over time. Dylan, on the other hand, avoided the mass merchandising that could have accompanied his initial success in the 1960s. But now, older, he’s pumping out all manner of merchandise.

On his website, a Like a Rolling Stone T-shirt costs $34.99, and a Shelter From the Storm hoodie sells for $74.99. A signed harmonica is $5,000, and a set of seven signed harmonicas played by Dylan costs $25,000.

The archive seeks goods that are useful for research, which tend to be print- and sound-related, while trying to discern what will be important in 50 or 100 years.

“You have to be very savvy,” said special-collections librarian Sarah Seraphin, who helps decide how the archive should grow.

She’s fascinated by the academic interest in Dylan but not a fan of his music.

Baky describes himself as a fan but not a superfan, interested in Dylan mostly from an archival perspective. He explored getting tickets for one of the Philadelphia shows at the Academy of Music, where the best seats were selling for $600 or more on secondary markets, then opted against it.

The price was too high, so he said nope.

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