In 1956, Bob Dylan was still known as Robert Zimmerman, a high school student in Hibbing, Minnesota who began forming bands after hearing a mix of blues, country, and rock and roll on the radio.
“If you look at a map, [Hibbing] really is the middle of nowhere,” says Robert Kirschner, managing curator of Skirball Cultural Center’s incarnation of the traveling exhibit Bob Dylan’s American Journey: 1956-1966. “From there, he heard the music from the deep south, from the Appalachians, from the folk traditions. He heard it on the radio and it captures the imagination.”
The exhibit, which was created by Seattle’s Experience Music Project with the consent of Dylan’s management, focuses on the artist’s early years, his transformation from Midwestern high school student to struggling folk singer to the voice of America’s changing landscape.
“From such a modest beginning, he traveled by virtue of his own imagination, his own talent, his own determination, to make an incredible impact on our society and on popular music and popular culture around the world,” Kirschner surmises. “It really is an inspirational story.”
A leading light of the Greenwich Village folk scene by the early 1960s, Dylan was heavily influenced by the often politically-charged work of Woody Guthrie. This inspiration is represented in the Skirball exhibit, which opens on February 8. Among the artifacts are several of Guthrie’s outfits, a copy of the biography Bound for Glory (with Dylan’s notes scrawled in the margins), and a guitar inscribed with Guthrie’s mantra, “This machine kills fascists.”
“These are actual artifacts that Dylan himself helped bring to us,” Kirschner explains.
Like Guthrie, Dylan’s lyrics often displayed a keen awareness of the societal changes that occurred across the United States. Dylan was (and still is) revered as an observer of the civil rights and anti-war movements of the era. His involvement in the counterculture is reflected throughout the exhibit.
“I think that above all, [the exhibit] really captures an era in the history of the United States that was of such consequence – the Civil War era, the anti-war era during the war in Southeast Asia, and the emergence of a popular artist as a voice of social conscience,” says Kirschner. “Dylan really galvanized the public in many respects, together with some of the catalytic leaders of the time, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy and the like.”
Dylan has remained both a popular and relevant figure in American music. His work has been covered by artists ranging from The Byrds to Jimi Hendrix to Guns ‘ Roses to Sonic Youth.
Kirschner hypothesizes that Dylan has become so deeply entrenched in popular culture because his influences spanned across a wide range of uniquely American musical styles. It also doesn’t hurt that Dylan still tours and that his most recent album, Modern Times, was released a little over one year ago.
“He is an artist to celebrate,” Kirschner concludes, “one of the true icons of American culture.”
Bob Dylan’s American Journey will run at Skirball Cultural Center from February 8 through June 8. In addition to over 160 artifacts, the exhibit will also feature an interactive display, where people can remix and play along with Dylan’s work. Throughout the course of the exhibit, the Skirball will host several corresponding musical performances and educational events.