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ARCHIVES COME ALIVE: review of: Bob Dylan, Mixing Up the Medicine

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Christopher Rollason

Feb 8, 2024, 10:51:29 AMFeb 8
ARCHIVES COME ALIVE: review of: Bob Dylan, Mixing Up the Medicine
Written and edited by Mark Davidson and Parker Fishel, 608 pp., New York: Callaway, 2023
This beautifully produced volume, which has been received by many as one of the best books ever on Bob Dylan, is the first publication to emanate from the archive that has been housed since 2022 in the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Co-edited by Mark Davidson, Curator of the Bob Dylan Archive, and fellow archivist Parker Fishel, it might at first sight appear a coffee-table book, or alternatively a study guide to the archive, but in reality it is neither of those things: it could be best described as an illustrated biography, with the particularity that most of its copious graphic material is taken from the archive and has never before seen print publication.

Biographically, the book offers an account, both lucid and ludic, of Bob Dylan's career, the focus being on the artistic rather than the personal, and within the personal on Dylan in his best-known manifestation as songwriter and musician (recognition also being accorded to his practice of other arts such as painting or cinema). The graphic material includes letters, manuscripts, photos, film stills, record sleeves, memorabilia and much more (one may note anecdotally such gems as a Christmas card from Paul McCartney!) Of particular interest to many will be the scans of draft lyrics as set down in notebooks or scribbled on hotel notepaper. We learn, for instance, that Dylan’s most revised song ever is 'Dignity' and that the archive contains some seventeen drafts of 'Jokerman'. However, one of the things this tome is not is a substitute for in-person research in Tulsa: the draft lyrics are by no means always reproduced in full, while archive location codes are not given anywhere in the book.

The volume is also of value for the thirty essays, critical or biographical and all specially commissioned, that are interspersed with the life material. The guest authors range from critics including the likes of Greil Marcus (on a super-early tape of 1960 from Madison, Wisconsin) and Alex Ross (on the drafts of ‘The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar’) to creative writers of the prestige of Peter Carey (on 'Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum') or Michael Ondaatje (who intriguingly compares Dylan as reviser of his own texts to another great rewriter, no less than Honoré de Balzac). The book is worth owning for these essays alone, foregrounding as they do the multiplicity of critical perspectives that exist on Dylan’s life and work.

In the months since it came out, this volume has been amply received, with overwhelmingly favourable reviews. Translations are already out in French, German and Spanish. For Dylan students this book impressively complements such earlier key material as Michael Gray’s The Bob Dylan Encyclopaedia or Dylan’s own Chronicles Volume One and The Philosophy of Modern Song; it offers something for everybody, whether one's focus be on lyrics, photos or biodata. The editors have gone to enormous lengths to celebrate the riches of the archive, and this the resulting book most certainly merits a prominent place on the shelves of any serious Dylan collection.
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