Exhibit chronicles early years of a folk master

SEATTLE – Among the letters, articles and artifacts at the Experience Music Project’s new Bob Dylan exhibit is a September 1967 review in The New York Times. It begins: “It will be a good joke on us if, in 50 years or so, Dylan is regarded as a significant figure in English poetry.”

Hah, hah.

The college courses and lectures on his music, the scholarly interpretations of his lyrics, and his repeated Nobel Prize nominations years ago cemented his reputation as more than a song and dance man. Now comes “Bob Dylan’s American Journey, 1956-1966,” the first major museum exhibit dedicated to his work.

“There’s cultural and political significance to Dylan’s music of that period,” said Robert Santelli, EMP’s director of programs. “It’s tied to the greater American story like no other period of his career.”

The exhibit, opening to the public Saturday, nicely complements the first volume of Dylan’s memoirs, released last month. In the book, Dylan tells of his days in Minneapolis, when he traded in his electric guitar for an acoustic 1949 double-O Martin, discovered Woody Guthrie and joined the folk scene.

In the museum, visitors can take a good look at the guitar, which Dylan brought with him to New York in 1961, when he went searching for Guthrie. Side-by-side photographs show how much the young Dylan tried to emulate his idol.

About 150 artifacts, gathered by Santelli and curator Jasen Emmons over the past two years from Dylan, other musicians and collectors, are on display. They include concert posters; harmonicas; handwritten lyrics; Dylan’s copy of Guthrie’s autobiography, “Bound For Glory;” hundreds of pounds of iron ore from Hibbing, Minn., where Dylan grew up; and the tambourine that inspired “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

Joan Baez contributed a playful and somewhat lewd letter that Dylan wrote to her mother back when they were dating, the king and queen of folk music. In it, Dylan pretends to be Joan.

The most powerful artifact isn’t Dylan’s at all. It’s Guthrie’s yellow-stained T-shirt from Greystone Park State Hospital in Morristown, N.J., where he spent the last years of his life suffering from the nervous system disorder Huntington’s chorea. Dylan often visited Guthrie there, and we can picture Guthrie – jerking, increasingly lost – wearing it as he listened to Dylan’s renditions of “Dust Bowl Blues” and “Pretty Boy Floyd.”

The exhibit, which is being accompanied by panel discussions on Dylan and will go on tour after it closes in Seattle next fall, begins with Robert Allen Zimmerman’s teenage years in Minnesota.

Almost immediately we see the pull of his vague ambition. After writing in Judy Setterstrom’s 1959 Hibbing High School yearbook that she has “the most beautifullest hair in school,” he adds: “Judy, I’m so tired. My head’s going round and round. I doubt if I’ll ever see you again after school lets out, but it’s been awful, awful nice knowing you.”

From there, he goes briefly to the University of Minnesota, and from there, to New York. He stepped onto Manhattan’s snowpacked streets in the dead winter of early 1961 with his new name, Bob Dylan. The civil rights movement was reaching fever pitch, and the folk revival was boiling in the coffeehouses of Greenwich Village. Dylan would soon find himself leading both.

His songs became piercing anthems for the times, targeting racial injustice (“Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”), war (“Masters of War,” “With God on Our Side”), nuclear proliferation (“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”), and poverty (“The Ballad of Hollis Brown”). His love songs, including “Girl of the North Country” and “Boots of Spanish Leather,” were heartbreaking. And no song heralded the coming counterculture like “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”

At the height of it all, Dylan plugged in. Though his first electric release was “Mixed Up Confusion” in 1962, he stunned his audience by going electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Dylan was booed. He left the stage, and came back with an acoustic guitar.

As a short film at the exhibit notes, the first song he played on it was “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”

Indeed it was. That summer, the nation heard a song unlike any other on the radio. “Like a Rolling Stone” was so popular that it forced some stations to abandon their three-minute-song formats. Dylan had turned to rock, where he could begin to explore the “wild mercury sound” he heard in his mind. His introspective, impressionistic lyrics would influence The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and virtually every other musician in the genre.

And that’s pretty much where the exhibit ends, in 1966, with “Blonde on Blonde” – the seventh of Dylan’s 40-plus albums – and his mysterious motorcycle accident, after which he canceled all public appearances and retreated to Woodstock, N.Y.

Dylan’s American journey would continue for another 38 years and counting. He hadn’t yet penned “All Along the Watchtower,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” 1975’s outstanding “Blood on the Tracks” or 1997’s Grammy-winning “Time Out of Mind.”

His career would see many reincarnations, from his Christian period in the late ’70s and early ’80s to his onstage epiphany in Locarno, Switzerland, which inspired him to play more than a hundred shows a year through much of the ’90s – a pace he still keeps. Many of those shows are at college campuses, where Dylan has connected with a generation far removed from the baby boomers who first seized him as a spokesman.

Dylan at EMP

“Bob Dylan’s American Journey, 1956-1966” opens Saturday and runs through Sept. 5, 2005, at the Experience Music Project, 325 Fifth Ave. N., Seattle.

Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; closed Mondays.

Cost: Admission is $19.95 general, $15.95 for seniors and $14.95 for youths 7-17. Children 6 and under get in free.

Don’t miss: Dylan’s 1949 Martin 00-14 guitar; the tambourine that inspired “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

Contact: 206-367-5483 or www.emplive.com.

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