On eve of Nobel honors, La Salle collection tangled up in clues to Dylan enigma

John Baky

John Baky

This weekend in Sweden, the Nobel Prizes will be conferred for physics, chemistry, medicine, and peace. But most people have been paying attention to the award for literature going to Bob Dylan — along with its attendant controversy. 

Some say a prize for literature should not go to a musician; Dylan, himself, seems ambivalent about the honor. After evading acknowledgment of the prize for weeks, he eventually announced he will accept the award but not attend the ceremony. Somebody (still unnamed) will attend with a prepared speech in his stead.

In Philadelphia, La Salle University is using the hubbub to draw attention to its own collection of Dylaniana — one of the largest collections of materials related to Dylan available to the public.

The 1,000 objects in the collection include LPs, CDs, live bootlegs, published biographies and encyclopedias, academic dissertations, fanzines, and fan art — such as a cigar box made from cut-up album art and a sequined wine box bedazzled with a Dylan collage. The array takes up about 70 feet of shelf space in a rare book vault, next to the Catholic university’s renowned collection of historic Bibles.

The university’s director of library services, John Baky, began the Dylan collection was begun in the late 1980s. In those days, few in the academic world appreciated Dylan’s impact on American culture or his longevity as an artist.

Baky saw the mercurial nature of Dylan’s artistic persona, and he felt an urgency to collect.

“The evolution of Dylan is magic theater — it keeps changing, both on purpose and not on purpose,” said Baky. “The trick is to constantly collect — everything evaporates into smoke in a year and a half with him.”

To get a full picture of Dylan, you have to put the absurd next to the profound.

Every word in every line of every song Dylan has ever written has been unpacked both by academic professionals and obsessive fans: the former in published books, the latter in self-published fanzines.

Bakey gets calls out of the blue from amateur enthusiasts — like one guy wanting to donate hundreds of bootleg recordings of Dylan concerts going back decades.

“The sound’s not great, but it documents the movement of Dylan, his sidemen, and his bands as they travel around the country for 30 years,” said Baky.

At the same time, serious scholarship has focused on Dylan related to literature, music, American culture, performance art, political dissent, even business studies.

“That’s why the Nobel is going his way,” said Baky. “You can’t manufacture that. There has to be something underlying, serious, for somebody to do that.”

La Salle University is currently working up an exhibition of Dylaniana, based mostly on its own collection, to be displayed in the spring.

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