Weisman exhibit explores Dylan's local roots through photos, artifacts

By Rose Patterson

I emerged from the Weisman museum this Saturday disheveled—a testimony to the artist’s own shock value and unkempt look. Who is this person and where did he come from? These questions led me through the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum on the University of Minnesota’s East Bank, which features “Bob Dylan’s American Journey 1956-1966” from Feb. 3 through April 29. It features artifacts of his life as “he traveled a road that connected the civil rights movement to the ’60s counterculture and the revival of American folk music to the creation of the iconic rock star.” It includes biographical information, books, letters, maps, album covers, posters, photographs. It also includes a collection of records and listening booths where visitors can tap into the vast array of his prolific work.

The Weisman highlights Dylan’s youth in Minnesota where he was born and raised. It features photographs of Dinkytown, where he spent the 1959-60 year, attending the University of Minnesota. The neighborhood was full of coffee shops, bars, bookshops, “and philosophy”—a true bohemian enclave for students. It was here that Dylan immersed himself in its culture, particularly in its musical scene. He moved from apartment to apartment on a meager income, using the outside ledge of his window as a refrigerator when it was cold enough. And it was here that he went acoustic, a natural development given his attraction to folk music. One of the more precious artifacts is a copy of “Bound for Glory” by Woodie Guthrie, the American folk musician who inspired Dylan. After a year at the U of M, Dylan moved to Greenwich City in New York City where he continued to live the “bohemian” lifestyle and to interact with other musicians.
“Blues Highway,” refers to Highway 61, which runs from the border of Minnesota and Canada through Duluth, the Twin Cities, and all the way through to New Orleans. In 1964, Dylan embarked on a road trip with friends down this very interstate. Their journey was reminiscent of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” ending in the West with a christening of the Beats who “accepted him as a peer.” The exhibit connects these fascinating facts to the development of his music; after exploring the U.S., he changed his sound.
Dylan was born with the ability to shock; at his high school talent show, he imitated Little Richard’s sound by pounding on the school’s Steinway piano, causing such a raucous that his own peers booed him and the school’s principal closed the curtains on him mid-performance. After his road trip through the U.S., his change of sound upset the folk community. And in his infamous performance at the Newport Folk Festival, he arrived donning an “unfolksy” black leather jacket and peg-leg pants, “went electric,” and caused an offensive racket—all to the horror and grave disapproval of the crowd. He faced another disaster on tour with the Hawks, where he was booed off of nearly every stage. Dylan was a resilient rebel, unphased by fear of failure.
He was influenced heavily by politics—and by women, both illustrated by photographs, documents, and quotes. He was deeply moved by the Civil Rights movement, which resonated with his concern for the struggle of the working man, expressed in his famous song “Blowin’ in the Wind.” One photograph features a solemn Dylan and Joan Baez posed in front of a poster that reads: “Protest Against the Rising Tide of Conformity.” The two fought strongly against the Vietnam War. The two were close friends who also shared a romance. The exhibit quotes a journalist who wrote that Baez gave him class and he gave her sex appeal, but their relationship was much more than that. Her social awareness and politics had a deep impression on him. Other women had a strong impact on Dylan’s life and works: he wrote that his high school girlfriends “turned him into a poet,” and his New York City girlfriend Suzu Rotolo introduced him to artists that influenced his lyrics.
The 1960s saw the perfection of Dylan’s electric sound, where he came fully onto the Rock ‘n’ Roll scene. His collaboration with the Session Men in Nashville, he came as close as ever to “that thin, that wild mercury sound,” as he put it. Then just as he was tiring of touring a motorcycle accident placed him back into the solace of family life.

The exhibit honors the man as well as his Minnesotan roots. But it seems clear that his greatest influences were from the outside. Whether you know the artist or not (and I admit here that I am not nearly as familiar with his work as I should be), the exhibit is impressionable. It offers an intimate and idiosyncratic history of one of the century’s most influential iconic figures. And given his engagement with America’s changes throughout the century, a trip to the Weisman is a trip through the “American conscience.” If you can go, go—the exhibit features a letter from his English teacher and a truly odd letter that Dylan wrote to Joan Baez’s mother. I’ll leave you there with something to discover.