Dylan in his own words

Love letters, a school essay and the very tambourine that inspired the song: a treasure trove of memorabilia could soon thrill British fans. Liz Thomson visits its American home
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The Independent Culture

For most of us, Seattle is the city of Starbucks and Microsoft, and, while we may have a love-hate relationship with both brands, Microsoft's millions have at least been put to good use by its co-founders: in the developing world by Bill Gates and, in his hometown, by the reclusive Paul Allen, whose musical passion drove the Experience Music Project, an idea originally conceived in 1991 as a homage to the great Jimi Hendrix, and named after his band, the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

In 1995, Allen commissioned the architect Frank Gehry to "do something really innovative", and the result is a pop-art aluminium structure inspired by the electric guitar. The Roots and Branches sculpture that greets the visitor features more than "500 previously used string instruments", and represents "the collision and co-mingling of various genres of American popular music".

Folk, country and Sixties psychedelia collided and co-mingled to memorable effect in Jimi Hendrix's version of "All along the Watchtower" from Bob Dylan's 1968 album, John Wesley Harding, and while the Hendrix Gallery, with its letters, poems and paintings, costumes, splintered guitars and those celebrated special -effects pedals, is testimony to Allen's enthusiasm for the Seattle-born axeman, the current draw is in the Special Exhibits Gallery, where Bob Dylan's American Journey 1956-1966 is showing through until Easter.

Curated by Robert Santinelli, the exhibition draws on material lent by such significant others as Joan Baez and Suze Rotolo, Dylan's first serious girlfriend, as well as from the collection of the late Robert Shelton, the New York Times critic whose 1961 review of the young man he described as "a cross between a choirboy and a beatnik" is credited with launching Dylan's career. Footage that Martin Scorsese excised from No Direction Home (Greil Marcus's declaration that only hearing Nirvana for the first time compared to witnessing Dylan's 1963 Newport debut was - perhaps rightly - left on the cutting-room floor), together with extracts from Don't Look Back and the rarely seen documentary Eat the Document, plus audio clips, including Bob Dylan at Carnegie Chapter Hall in November 1961, make for a rich multimedia experience.

Much thought and imagination has gone into this exhibition, both in the way it is presented and in terms of what is presented. Material relating to Dylan's early years, spent in the iron-ore town of Hibbing, is cleverly displayed against a backdrop of 1,500lb of red iron ore. The protest years of the early 1960s unfold against a background of tan suede, symbolising the tough work clothes worn by Woody Guthrie and copied by Dylan. And what else but black leather could symbolise the rock'n'roll years?

Like the documentary only more so, Bob Dylan's American Journey puts Dylan into his social, political and musical context - vital, given that, for Dylan's younger fans, the Sixties are practically ancient history. Thus, alongside the Hibbing High School Year Book, in which young Robert Zimmerman's photo is captioned "To join Little Richard", visitors can don headphones and experience the voices of Leadbelly, Odetta, Guthrie and Pete Seeger, all of whom played their part in turning the would-be rock'n'roller into the folk-protest singer Bob Dylan.

But if young Bob spent evenings searching the airwaves for such music, he was also doing some work.

An essay from February 1958, for English II, sets out to answer the question, "Does Steinbeck sympathise with his characters?". "I think he does," wrote Bob in his opening paragraph, "and now I will try to prove my theory. Of course, he does not sympathise with every single one of them in every one of his books; but he does, I think, sympathise with most of them. I have taken three of his bestselling books to prove this."

However, Dylan's teacher, B J Rolfzen - now eightysomething and still living in Hibbing - was clearly disappointed, marking it only "quite good", and adding that both footnotes and bibliography were wrong. "I think more could have been done with this, don't you?" he remarks.

Guthrie is thrown into high relief, with copies of his lyrics and posters, one of them announcing him "singing by special request... songs of the common people dedicated to skid road and Dust Bowl Refugees". Photos, one of Guthrie in the 1940s, another of Dylan in the 1960s, show each in the same pose, wearing almost identical workshirts, cigarettes dangling from their lips. The only difference is that Dylan is clearly stoned.

As George Clooney's recent film Goodnight, and Good Luck reminds us, Senator McCarthy's power was, for a time, all-pervasive, and the story of the urban folk revival took place against that hysteria, and was, to a large extent, a reaction to it. Records and papers relating to USA vs Pete Seeger, case number 27,100 in the US Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, make for chilling reading. Those, like Seeger, who found themselves accused of being fellow-travellers were almost inevitably involved in the Civil Rights struggle, which, by the early 1960s, was gaining ground even as blacks continued to be lynched and white intellectuals who headed South to help them disappeared.

Dylan went with Seeger to Greenwood, Mississippi, where he stood on the back of a truck and sang "Only a Pawn in Their Game". Visitors can listen to the song while reading about its subject, Medgar Evers, and about the freedom rides, sit-ins, activist groups such as the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee, and the Civil Rights Act, which would not have been passed had Dr Martin Luther King not led his "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom" on 28 August 1963. After King had dreamt his dream, Dylan sang outside the Lincoln Memorial to the 250,000 people gathered there, and many more watching on television.

In addition to the political, there is much that is personal. A well-thumbed Penguin edition of Byron's poetry, inscribed to Rotolo (pictured left), for example. And Dylan's somewhat risqué letter to Joan Baez Sr, pretending to be Joanie, who felt the need to clarify the situation with a covering note. "Better not let the old man see this," she cautions, before updating "mummy" on her plans for California. "I think Bobby will come and stay with me for a while if my house is done, but he has a tour starting September 8. You would be pleased to see that we have such fun together. I really love him."

British fans should be able to see this exhibition for themselves in the not-too-distant future: the organisers are looking for a UK venue.

Bob Dylan's American Journey, 1956-1966, at the Experience Music Project, Seattle, has been extended to April ( www.emplive.org)