Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan Revisited

Review #2 from NYC immersion (my first review on an exhibit). This one was workshopped with Alex Ross of the New Yorker.

On July 25, 1965, Bob Dylan electrified the Newport Folk Festival with his backup rock band, where he alienated fans and gained new ones by switching from acoustic to electric. Bob Dylan’s American Journey, 1956-1966 offers new insights on his progression towards that change. Using a wide range of artifacts and memorabilia, including typed song lyrics, handwritten letters, and video clips, the interactive exhibition chronicles Dylan’s early career.

The exhibit, organized by Seattle’s Experience Music Project, is on display at the Morgan Library and Museum from Sept. 29 to Jan. 6.

Large crowds were drawn by the name “Dylan,” and the room at the Morgan was a tight squeeze. However, the small space was utilized to the fullest extent. The material was displayed in chronological order, starting with his formative high school years. A 1959 Hibbing High School Yearbook signed from Dylan (then Robert Zimmerman) offered clues into his enigmatic personality with his barely legible handwriting and bad spelling.

A picture of Zimmerman from the same yearbook shows a chubby-faced young man as opposed to the gaunt Dylan we’ve come to recognize. A member of the Latin and Social Studies Clubs, his goal was to “join Little Richard,” which may come as a shock to those who thought he was betraying his folk roots when he went electric. He was clearly influenced by rock and roll even in those early years.

Another influence on Dylan and the folk tradition was “The Grapes of Wrath.” In a 1958 essay on the novel, the high school junior received a B. The first page of the paper is displayed with comments from the teacher saying that he could have done more with the topic, showing yet another side of Dylan—the lazy student.

It is impossible to understand Dylan’s development as an artist without the music. Listening stations for the seven albums from the time period include useful information such as date of release, key tracks, and why it matters. These provide context for even the most casual fans, but even the takeaway value of the exhibit is high, no matter how much prior knowledge one has or how many times one has heard the albums.

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