May 23, 2019
Who knew in the early 1960s that a scratchy sounding folk singer named Bob Dylan would still be a cultural force in 2019? John Baky did.
Something in the Minnesota native's music convinced him Dylan would be around for a long, long time. About 25 years ago, Baky began collecting Dylan items such as records, books, documentaries, and art graphics - not for a personal scrapbook, but to start a professionally cataloged, academically structured research collection.
That collection is housed at La Salle University's Connelly Library, where Baky was its director for 37 years. (He's retired, but still curates the collection, along with several other rare book and manuscript research collections he's started.)
Academic libraries, he says, often are reluctant to collect popular culture subjects and artifacts because they tend to be transitory. But once something popular attains a certain "cultural" prominence, or intellectual reputation, academic libraries and museums often begin acquiring materials. Baky has a sense of satisfaction in that he began his collection two decades before other academic institutions started taking Dylan seriously.
As with any collection, items early in the subject's career were relatively inexpensive and somewhat easy to obtain. Now that Dylan is an icon, materials related to him, such as concert tickets from early shows, posters, even flyers with concert details, have gone up in price, and Baky has to compete with colleges as well as private collectors who want all things Dylan.
For example, in 2016 Dylan's personal papers and materials were sold to the University of Tulsa for a reported $22 million, a sale Baky said, a sale that came about with the help of wealthy private donors supporting the university.
Baky does not recall what was the first artifact he obtained was, but the La Salle collection now has about 1,000 items, from video tapes and biographies, original vinyl and pressed 45's, to reproduced paintings and illustrations by Dylan, who turns 78 today, May 24.
There are also 25 doctoral dissertations, that Baky says “address all kinds of interests, from the philology of his lyrics, to psycho-social aspects of his music in popular culture, to whether his extraordinary historical durability is inherent or a product of modern marketing, and on and on.”
“They are rarely interesting to anyone but the very narrow audiences for which they are aimed,” he said.
But the collection isn't only for graduate students: there are bootleg recordings, t-shirts, newspaper and magazine articles and video, and “extraordinary” sets of fanzines from Great Britain.
While Baky has curated the Dylan Collection by himself, professional catalogers at the library have worked on the material so that it conforms to Library of Congress and American Association of Archivists standards.
He has never tried to contact Dylan, and the singer has never contacted Baky, who is a Dylan fan, and has seen him in concert five times, the first in 1973. He was unable to attend Dylan's most recent Philadelphia appearance, when he opened the revamped Met theater, but “I have the two page paper program for the Met concert. A friend gave (me),” he said.
Dylan's permanence, says Baky, stems from several factors, including the quality of his lyrics and how he has commented on important social events since the 1960s. If anyone needed convincing of Dylan's place in world culture, his 2016 Nobel Prize in literature should be persuasive.
Baky has not only obtained practically every album, record and CD Dylan has released, but recordings of other artists performing his music. “One of the strengths of the collection is the number of Dylan covers we own,” said Baky. “Now we have in the range of 100 to 200 different (versions) of his songs. "All Along the Watch Tower" has probably been covered a dozen times by various people and bands. "Blow'in in the Wind" and "Mr. Tamborine Man" have been covered probably to uncountable numbers.”
A few years ago, he received an anonymous phone call from a man who had attended many Dylan concerts across the country, offering to donate his “very primitive” cassette tapes. The quality isn't good, says Baky, but they serve a purpose: if you listen to them in chronological order, he says, you can experience the progression of Dylan's career, how his interpretation of songs might have changed, how he uses some songs in shows some years but not in other tours.
Among the items Baky finds most interesting are the 33 and 1/3 album recordings and 45s.
“These early 45's were produced in Mexico, Japan, Indonesia, and some other more exotic places – you might not ever see more than one of these in your life,” he said. If a scholar or fan wants to hear that music, Baky has vintage record players and turntables to play those and vinyl albums. “We also have equipment available to view the VHF tapes, DVD's, and other media formats,” he said. “Our exhibits of material in the Dylan Collection are also digitized on the website.”
One item not in the catalog is Dylan's 2004 commercial for Victoria's Secret. When it was first broadcast, Baky was quoted in a Wall Street Journal article saying, “I am going to have to go blow my brains out.”
But today, he'd be willing to take one for the team, as it were, and accept if someone offered to donate it.