The exhibition includes listening booths featuring the seven albums Dylan put out during the incredibly fertile four years between his 1962 recording debut and 1966's "Blonde on Blonde." People who don't know their Dylan can hear key songs from each album. Those who do can push the button that gives them a rare outtake or bootleg. And those who simply cannot stand the man's, um, distinctive voice -- Emmons, who's 41, admits to being such a person when he was young and foolish -- can choose a cover version: the Byrds, for instance, harmonizing "Mr. Tambourine Man."
There's great video, too. Once the museum had persuaded Dylan and his camp to sign on, it got access to a huge archive of footage currently being used by director Martin Scorsese to make a PBS documentary (it's scheduled to be shown in July). By combining this with other material -- most notably D.A. Pennebaker's "Don't Look Back" and "Eat the Document," a rarely screened film shot on Dylan's 1966 tour -- EMP was able to produce 25 minutes of concert footage for its main theater, plus four mini-documentaries for the exhibition itself.
(Experience Music Project)
"Everybody's gifted," says folk queen and onetime Dylan love interest Joan Baez, but "there are some people who crash through all the barriers with their gift, because it's a particular one, it's unique and it's enormous." Images of the Gifted One assembled by EMP include footage from the famed 1965 Newport Folk Festival, at which the newly electrified Dylan either was or was not roundly booed (it's hard to tell from the tape, and Dylanologists still debate the question). At one point, back in acoustic mode, he asked the crowd if anyone had an E harmonica. You can hear what sounds like a dozen thud onstage.
EMP worked hard to avoid hagiographic excess. "Dylan has come to represent the very historical moment that formed him," as Emmons's colleague Ann Powers put it in the show's introductory text, but the exhibition itself doesn't make the mistake of thinking he created that historical moment. There is fascinating contextual material on Hibbing, for example, including a wall made of the iron ore that was the town's reason for being; on the legendary songwriter Woody Guthrie, whom Dylan at first slavishly imitated; on key participants in the folk boom of the early 1960s; and on the civil rights and antiwar movements of that time.
All this context helps keep Dylan at human scale without in any way diminishing his accomplishments. But what really humanizes him for visitors, Emmons says, are the numerous highly personal artifacts scattered through the show.
Take the teacher's comments on young Bob's high school paper on John Steinbeck: "Your footnoting is wrong. . . . Look at the forms that I handed out to you. You use the phrase too frequently 'You can't help but like.' " Who couldn't identify with that?
Check out Dylan's battered paperback copy of Guthrie's "Bound for Glory," then look at the juxtaposed photographs of the two men: Each is holding a guitar and throwing his head back, with the only real difference being the angle of the twin cigarettes dangling from their lips. The younger man's pose says "adolescent hero worship" as clearly as if spelled out.
Then there are the two astonishing letters, one typed and one handwritten, tucked unobtrusively in the section highlighting the Dylan-Baez connection. The typed one is supposed to be a letter from Baez to her mother, but the familiar Dylan liner-notes style -- all lower case, with the "o" dropped from "to" -- gives away the game:
"i figured like t get t sleep you know," the fake Joan writes, "an well i got in t bed y'know and jesus i pulled back the blanket and who do you think was hiding under the quilt? yeah, him."
The letter goes on to narrate the amorous encounter that supposedly ensued: "you-know-who didn't waste any time let me tell yuh. he just threw me on the bed like some kind of caveman . . . mummy, i blew so hard in his ear, i thought his eyes would pop out." A smitten Baez sent it home with a cover letter explaining its origins:
"It's a little lewd. He giggled over it for an hour," she wrote. And: "He is beautiful to me."
You can't help but like a guy who can pull a stunt like that.
"Bob Dylan's American Journey" is a compact 3,000 square feet, but there's way more to it than can be crammed into a little newspaper story. We haven't even mentioned the annotated "Bringing It All Back Home" album cover, or the $10 Turkish tambourine that helped inspire the famous song (it belonged to well-known New York sideman Bruce Langhorne), or any number of other evocative Dylan artifacts and video moments.
But if the Smithsonian does the right thing, they'll be coming soon to a Mall near you.