bob dylan

My Brief Encounter With Musician/Historian John Cohen. RIP.


When the news of John Cohen’s death arrived last week, it sent me back to a quality visit we had five years ago. I was writing about the opening of the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, and he was there to help launch the museum with an exhibit of his photographs of Guthrie and Bob Dylan. Here was a man whose own musical history — as a member of the pioneering New Lost City Ramblers — would be impressive enough. But John’s career as a musicologist, photographer and documentary maker expanded his footprint greatly. I’d never met him before, so I am grateful to have encountered his gentle style and the wealth of his experience. Also glad to have preserved this small moment on video (below), where he talks about shooting Dylan for the first time in 1962:

A few months later John’s book including many of those pictures on display came out. Its title is more poignant now: Here and Gone. His books and music certainly are worth seeking out. I’m glad I got turned onto Amanda Petrusich’s insightful piece about him and his discovery of a noted banjo player that ran in The New Yorker a few years ago, actually the year following this video. Check it out here:

I don’t know how I missed it then, but Petrusich has become my new favorite writer at the magazine. Our interests seem to overlap frequently (see her recent appreciation of the late Robert Frank).

Behind the Scenes with the Dylan Papers in Tulsa

I've had a thing for Tulsa the last few years, ever since I wrote about the opening of the Woody Guthrie Center in what has become a vibrant arts district on the edge of downtown. Last year, one of my last columns before I retired from The Kansas City Star, was about the acquisition of the Bob Dylan archives, which are now being processed in Tulsa (here: This week, while making a Tulsa stop on my book tour, I got a chance to visit with the Dylan archivist, Mark Davidson. He gave me an introductory tour of the archives, showing me examples of their broad scope.


Scraps of paper with Johnny Cash's phone number and address. A business card for Otis Redding. Manuscript song lyrics in formation. ("Farewell, Angelina" ... ) Letters from the likes of Allen Ginsberg. A sweet note from George Harrison, here in its entirety: "Dear Bobbie, Thanks for Nashville Skyline, it is beautiful. Love to you all..." Photos from the Rolling Thunder tour-- Dylan at Jack Kerouac's grave; Joni Mitchell, enraptured and looking up at Dylan from her front row seat at a concert. (I happen to be reading David Yaffe's new biography of Joni, which, of course, covers the odd vibrations of that tour.) The black leather jacket that Dylan wore during the shocking electric show at the Newport Folk Festival in '65. And, curiously, a large hand drum owned by the late guitarist Bruce Langhorne, which inspired Dylan to write "Mr. Tambourine Man." Rather than the familiar tambourine, this is a shallow drum like an Irish bodhran, but usually identified as Turkish. Its stretched leather has patches of dark wear, like an ancient rubbed object. Mark Davidson flipped it over and showed where a bandaid had been placed over a small split. The drum came from the Langhorne estate. The George Kaiser Family Foundation, which has funded much of the cultural expansion in Tulsa in recent years, added it to the Dylan collection, because, Davidson said, "It was a good fit."

The archives are open only to researchers, and I hope to return some day to work on a project. Work has begun into transforming a building into a Dylan museum just down the block from the Guthrie Center. And keep your ears open for further developments on the musical archives front as Tulsa and its savvy philanthropists build on a very good thing.

Sorry, no photos allowed. But here's an image of the Helmerich Center for American Research, where the Dylan archives are housed, and one of the Zarrow Building, which will become the Dylan museum.