Report by Christopher Rollason, participant


Bob Dylan imagined before his poet’s eyes ‘every bit of dust in the Oklahoma plains’ in ‘Hard Times In New York Town’, one of his earliest songs, and outsiders might have an image of Tulsa, Oklahoma’s second city, as just another mid-sized mid-western town, scarcely distinguishable from a score of others – and best known to the wider world from the weepy Bacharach-David number ’24 Hours from Tulsa’ with which Gene Pitney stormed the charts in 1963.

Such a view, however, is wrong for a city that is today host to a multiplicity of arts venues, from the Gilcrease Museum with its remarkable holdings of Native American art to the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame and the Woody Guthrie Center. The latter has hosted the great folksinger’s archive since 2013: the young Dylan’s idol was, indeed, born in Oklahoma in 1912. It is therefore more than logical that the University of Tulsa should today also be the home of the Institute for Bob Dylan Studies, the Bob Dylan archive (operative since 2016 and open to scholars) and the Bob Dylan Center (planned to become the public face of the archive in 2022). Indeed, the traveller arriving at Tulsa’s airport is greeted by prominent posters of both Dylan and Guthrie, and Dylan has publicly endorsed Tulsa as the location for his enormous, multimedia archive.

Tulsa’s place on the Dylan studies map has now been further cemented by the World of Bob Dylan International Conference, held from 30 May to 2 June 2019 and spearheaded by the Institute for Bob Dylan Studies. The conference, its venues divided between the Hyatt Regency hotel, the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame and the Gilcrease Museum and its Helmerich Center for American Research, attracted a public of 500, 150 of whom gave papers. The organiser-in-chief was Sean Latham, Walter Professor of English at the University of Tulsa and director of the Institute for Bob Dylan Studies.

The ‘world of research’, as evoked by Dylan in his song ‘Nettie Moore’ from 2006, was amply gratified by the event. It included plenary lectures by the legendary Greil Marcus, doyen of American cultural studies and arch-priest of Dylan lore, and by music critic Ann Powers; a showing of film material from the archive; sessions explaining the archive project; and an evening with no less a Dylan collaborator than Roger McGuinn, who as a member of the Byrds made that group’s cover of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ a US/UK number one in 1965, and now shared reminiscences and performed Dylan compositions including that song (all four verses too!) and the lesser-known gem ‘Up To Me’.

Those giving papers included some of the foremost contemporary names in Dylan studies, and the range of subjects and approaches testified to the profundity and multifacetedness of Bob Dylan’s extraordinary writing. With so many contributors, it would be invidious to single out some and not name others, and I therefore refer the reader to the conference programme at: https://dylan.utulsa.edu/world-bob-dylan-symposium/program-2/. What I will say is that the papers were generally of high standard and the level of debate was of quality – this not to mention the multiple and vital fringe conversations that took place between Dylan enthusiasts, in the hotel bar and corridors.

The conference was complemented by the Gilcrease Museum with two excellent exhibitions: ‘Bob Dylan: Face Value and Beyond’, a selection of Dylan’s visual art, including a remarkable set of portraits; and ‘Shakespeare’s in the Alley: A Tribute to Bob Dylan’, an experience around hanging texts of the master’s lyrics, conceived by Wisconsin-based artist Skye.

The atmosphere throughout was warm and convivial, and the conference provided a unique opportunity for Dylan-related networking and sharing of knowledge. This remarkable event will indeed, like Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, have ‘opened many a door’!


Note added 10 January 2020: The paper I gave at this conference, “Dylan the writer at work: on the multiple versions of ‘Dignity’ and the two versions of ‘Ain’t Talkin””, is on-line at:


and has been published in print form in the Dylan zine ‘The Bridge’ (Gateshead, UK): No 64, Winter 2019, pp. 65-77.


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