1,500-pound wall of iron ore mined from northern Minnesota. Performances by Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie. A large map of Greenwich Village in the early ’60s.
What they all have in common: The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum exhibit “Bob Dylan's American Journey: 1956-1966,” which is as much about Dylan’s influences as the man himself.
The curators explain his epic creativity by showing the links between his songwriting and his times. Dylan, a restless prodigy, fled his isolated Minnesota hometown to soak up Depression-era balladry, Beat and symbolist poetry, civil-rights righteousness, Cold War nightmares and rock-’n’-roll electricity. Then he combined them to shock and transform folk music by 22 and rock music by 25.
The exhibition’s smart cultural-history approach deepens a casual fan’s appreciation of the singer, and it holds surprises even for Dylan freaks, such as me and my father. We hadn’t known Dylan, as a teenage rock-and-roll fan, saw one of Buddy Holly’s last concerts until we read the caption to a photo of Holly performing at the show, in Duluth, Minn., two days before his plane-crash death in 1959.
Most Dylan biographies note the singer’s early hero-worship of Guthrie, but they don’t show it as vividly as a young Dylan’s copy of a Woody Guthrie songbook in which he underlined a warning that singers shouldn’t imitate Guthrie’s Okie accent. Across the room, next to a photo of Guthrie holding up a guitar, smoking a cigarette and wearing a buttoned-down work shirt over a striped T-shirt, there’s a photo of Dylan smoking, posing with his guitar and wearing the same outfit: work shirt, striped T.
The Dylan show, organized by Experience Music Project, the Rock Hall’s Seattle rival, is superior to some previous Rock Hall exhibits that presented interesting memorabilia randomly, as if they were the most exciting finds from the rocker’s attic. Instead, this show was carefully curated to fit its theme. The commentary text is almost always accurate and sophisticated (except when the section on Joan Baez undercuts her importance to Dylan by calling her his “momentary lover” — they were a couple, duet partners and mutual influences for more than two years).
A piece of promotional writing sent to radio stations with Dylan’s song “Blowin’ in the Wind,” headlined “Rebel With A Cause,” shows how shrewdly Columbia Records packaged its seemingly noncommercial new talent. Though Dylan hated the “protest singer” label, he clearly sensed his best lines’ power as slogans: “If God’s on our side, he’ll stop the next war!” he scribbled across a copy of a left-wing folk magazine that reprinted his lyrics. You can see Dylan’s cockiness in the collection of Lord Byron poems he gave his first New York girlfriend, Suze Rotolo — the long-haired bohemian beauty walking with him on the cover of “Freewheelin.” The book is opened to the inscription, signed “Lord Byron Dylan.”
The top floor explores Dylan’s second triumph, in 1965 and 1966, when he merged his jester playfulness and apocalyptic surrealism with rock-’n’-roll. Video stations play interview clips and outtakes from the PBS documentary “No Direction Home.” Listening stations feature most of the songs on his first seven albums.
So engrossing is the multimedia overload that it’s easy to miss the exhibit’s best piece of memorabilia: the tambourine belonging to Dylan’s friend Bruce Langhorne, an inspiration for Dylan’s visionary lyric “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
“Bob Dylan’s American Journey: 1956-1966” will be at the Rock Hall through Sept. 7. Visit www.rockhall.com or call (216) 781-7625 for more information.