Records:  University of Minnesota tried to obtain Bob Dylan’s archives

By Mike Kaszuba

In August of 2011, music legend Bob Dylan had just turned age 70. Newly obtained records show that the University of Minnesota reached out to his representatives at that same time about an archiving project.

Documents obtained by Saint Paul-based non-profit Public Record Media (PRM) reveal that the school was interested in knowing whether one of its most famous students would want to deposit his personal papers at the University’s Upper Midwest Literary Archives.  A Dylan representative was told that the school’s archives “currently holds the papers of poets such as John Berryman and Robert Bly [along with] writer Frederick Manfred” and others.

“It’s no understatement to say that such a collection [as Dylan’s] – the manuscripts, notes, correspondence, photos, clippings, ephemera, artwork, and other materials that document his life and work – would be of tremendous research value,” archives curator Cecily Marcus wrote.

But the former student (who only attended the school for a short time) would bypass the university.  Five years later, the Minnesota native would instead choose the University of Tulsa, where his personal papers would be joined with those of Woody Guthrie, the legendary folk singer and Oklahoma native whom Dylan had long idolized.

Noncommittal response to university

When Marcus reached out to Dylan representative Jeff Rosen in 2011, records show the reply was short and noncommittal – a sign that was consistent with Dylan’s own ambivalence toward his former school. 

“We will certainly keep the University of Minnesota’s archive in mind if there comes a time when Bob would like to dispose of his papers,” Rosen wrote to Marcus.

Marcus told Rosen to “please feel free to contact me at any time if Mr. Dylan is open to having a conversation about the possibility of bringing his archive to the University of Minnesota.  I hope to hear from you.”

But Marcus told PRM in October it was the last time she heard from Dylan’s representatives.  “The only correspondence I had was already shared with you.  I heard about the Dylan archive Tulsa acquisition when it was announced publicly in March 2016,” she said.

Mark Engebretson, a spokesman for University of Minnesota Libraries, said the school likewise had little information about what transpired.  “I think you might want to follow up with the University of Tulsa and/or Bob Dylan’s representatives to learn why Mr. Dylan chose to deposit his archives there, under what conditions, and why he didn’t choose the University of Minnesota,” he said.

“We have had no other communication with Mr. Dylan or his representatives on this matter,” added Engebretson.

Despite that, Dylan’s ties to the University of Minnesota continue to be celebrated in his home state.  Meet Minneapolis, the city’s official tourism arm, lists “Noteworthy Bob Dylan Minneapolis-Area Destinations” on its website.  One of them is the Sigma Alpha Mu Fraternity house on University Avenue, where the website said “Dylan pledged to the Sigma Alpha Mu Fraternity on the University of Minnesota campus before flunking out of school in 1960.”

Two others that are listed are Gray’s Drugstore in Dinkytown, a small commercial area near the school, and the 10 O’Clock Scholar, a since-demolished coffee house near the university on the corner of 5th Street and 14th Avenue SE.  The Meet Minneapolis website said it was at the 10 O’Clock Scholar that the singer, then known as Robert Zimmerman, decided to change his name to Bob Dylan before taking the stage one night.

Few indications Dylan considered Minnesota for archive

In announcing his decision to choose the University of Tulsa, Dylan gave no indication that he ever considered the University of Minnesota.  “I’m glad that my archives, which have been collected all these years, have finally found a home and are to be included with the works of Woody Guthrie and especially alongside all the valuable artifacts from the Native American Nations,” he wrote when the announcement was made by the University of Tulsa and the George Kaiser Family Foundation, a charitable organization based in Tulsa.

“To me, it makes a lot of sense and it’s a great honor,” Dylan added.

The March 2016 announcement said Dylan’s archives had been acquired jointly by Tulsa University and the George Kaiser Family Foundation.  “The alliance of [the foundation and Tulsa University] was chosen by Dylan’s representatives over other suitors vying for this historic collection, and both entities view the archive as an important acquisition for Tulsa in many ways,” the announcement stated.  “Our combined philanthropic and academic approach made a strong case for assuring Mr. Dylan and his representatives that Tulsa would provide the ideal environment to care for and exhibit this collection.

“The result is a boon for Tulsa that will soon attract Bob Dylan fans and scholars to our city from around the world,” the announcement added.

But the main players in bringing Dylan’s archives to Tulsa have since had little to say about whether Minnesota was ever a competitor.

“Dylan’s office and the George Kaiser Family Foundation are the only ones, I think, who know these confidential details,” Sean Latham, the director of the Tulsa University Institute for Bob Dylan Studies, told PRM via e-mail in November.

The George Kaiser Family Foundation did not respond to inquiries from PRM, nor did the New York City-based Glenn Horowitz Bookseller, which was described in the announcement as having facilitated Dylan’s archives ending up in Oklahoma.

Similarly Orin Snyder, an attorney who has represented Dylan, did not respond to an inquiry from PRM.

Collection includes papers, recordings, artifacts

Dylan’s archives meanwhile contain many important artifacts from the singer’s career and – according to the March 2016 announcement – feature “thousands of historic items.”  The collection includes the surviving harp from inside the piano that Dylan used to compose “Like A Rolling Stone”, and the leather jacket that the singer wore onstage at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, the year that Dylan shocked the folk world by going electric.

According to a statement from Glenn Horowitz Bookseller, the collection also contains  “thousands of hours of studio and concert recordings, taped interviews, music videos and rushes from the films Dylan directed himself in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as all the master tapes from his recording sessions and hundreds of unreleased, largely unheard, concert recordings from the early 1960s through to the present day, which together stand as the most significant and primary cache of his recorded legacy.”

The collection also consists of Dylan’s earliest music recordings from 1959 – roughly the time he would have arrived in Minneapolis and lived near the University of Minnesota.  In addition, the archives include a 1974 notebook with Dylan’s handwritten lyrics to songs – including “Tangled Up In Blue” – that went into his biggest-selling album, “Blood On The Tracks”, which was partially recorded in Minneapolis.

Dylan’s reflections on time in Minnesota

In his 2004 book, “Chronicles, Volume One”, Dylan did elaborate on his time in Minneapolis in the late 1950s and early 1960s – but barely mentioned the University of Minnesota.

“My life had never been the same since I’d first heard Woody [Guthrie] on a record player in Minneapolis a few years earlier,” he wrote.  “When I first heard him it was like a million megaton bomb had dropped.

Describing his arrival in Minneapolis, Dylan – who grew up in Duluth and Hibbing – wrote that “now at last I was in Minneapolis where I felt liberated and gone, never meaning to go back.  I’d come into Minneapolis unnoticed, I rode in on a Greyhound bus – nobody was there to greet me and nobody knew me and I liked it that way.  My mother had given me an address for a fraternity house on University Avenue.  My cousin Chucky, whom I just slightly knew, had been the fraternity president.”

Later, Dylan described how he ended up in Dinkytown, the small commercial district adjacent to the university campus.  “In the fall, I was sitting at the lunch counter at Gray’s drugstore.  Gray’s drugstore was in the heart of Dinkytown.  I had moved into a room right above it.  School was back in session and university life was picking up again,” he wrote.  “By this time, I was making three to five dollars every time I played at either one of the coffeehouses around or another place over in St. Paul.”

But Dylan eventually had his eyes set on moving to New York City, and his days in the Twin Cities were numbered.

“Eventually, it was time for me to get out of Minneapolis,” Dylan wrote. “Just like Hibbing, the Twin Cities had gotten a little too cramped, and there was only so much you could do.  The world of folk music was too closed off and the town was beginning to feel like a mud puddle.”