New Life for the Basement Tapes: A Modern American Epic
The story of the Basement Tapes – those songs recorded in 1967 at a house known as Big Pink in West Saugerties, NY, by Bob Dylan and The Band – is a quintessential American-music story, with all the appropriate elements of a classical epic: a beginning in medias res; the telling and retelling of the tale; the introduction of epic heroes; the journey in parts; mystery and intrigue; discovery; homecoming. The culmination of the odyssey has taken nearly 50 years, and, in a beautiful postmodern turn, now receives two new volumes at the same time.
These two new volumes, or cantos – songs, after all – both due in November, have been a long time coming. One is the work of five musicians popular today – Elvis Costello, Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Marcus Mumford (Mumford & Sons), Rhiannon Giddens (Carolina Chocolate Drops), and Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes). With T Bone Burnett in the producer’s chair, this custom-made band creates new songs based on lyrics Dylan wrote in 1967. The other upcoming release is a time capsule of sorts from six musicians – Dylan, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, Robbie Robertson, and, later, Levon Helm – that mixes new songs and old standards recorded in their Catskill neighborhood in 1967. Dylan is the link between the former, Lost on the River, and the latter, The Basement Tapes Complete. But also joining the two albums – inseparable from Dylan’s contributions, if we’re honest – is their intense spirit of celebration and jubilation. The joy being taken in making music cannot adequately be written about. Like any good epic, it must be heard out loud.
And, like any epic, it’s an oft-told tale. With history behind us, though, we can flesh out details – thanks first to the original recordings themselves, preserved by Hudson and restored by Hudson and his close friend, Canadian producer and archivist Jan Haust. There are the extensive Basement Tapes Complete liner notes – penned by Sid Griffin (Long Ryders/Coal Porters) – which will accompany the set, plus track-by-track notes written by Ben Rollins (an associate producer of Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour) for the free Bob Dylan Bootleg Series app. With all this in hand, our story begins.
The Telling and Retelling of the Tale
Once upon a time, Bob Dylan, his beautiful young wife Sara, and their family of small children were living in Upper Byrdcliffe, above Woodstock, NY, on the side of Guardian Mountain. They were happy there, as they were also happy later, in a home across town on Ohayo Mountain – until, as Dylan recounts in his autobiography Chronicles Vol. 1, people in search of the Voice of a Generation began sleeping on his porch and walking over his roof. He moved back to Manhattan, and then to points west, as the 1970s closed in.
By July of 1966, though, Dylan and his touring band – the Hawks – had just finished a world tour, when Dylan was reportedly in a serious motorcycle accident outside Woodstock. He dropped out of the public eye, as best he could, to recover. When he moved to his house next to the Byrdcliffe Art Colony, four members of the Hawks settled in the area, too. Three of them – Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Rick Danko – rented a pink house on a large property outside Saugerties that was soon nicknamed Big Pink. Robbie Robertson moved nearby, and Levon Helm, who had left the band before the tour and gone home to Arkansas, joined them in the area in late 1967.
“I’m tryin’ to be like the medium at a séance,” Dylan told the New York Daily News in May of 1967. “There’s a mystery, magic, truth, and the Bible in great folk music. I can’t hope to touch that, but I’m goin’ to try.” So, the summer before Levon moved to town, Hudson set up his mighty Revox reel-to-reel. In the basement of Big Pink, as well as in Dylan’s own home studio called “the Red Room” (though Big Pink was indeed pink, the Red Room was not red), they captured some of the new songs Dylan was writing, as well as performances of new standards and traditional staples. The men later recorded more at the house Danko and Helm shared when Helm moved to Woodstock, out on Wittenberg Road.
“The sound was not as stellar or distinctive,” says Rollins’ liners, rightly. He goes on to note that none of the Wittenberg Road recordings have been in circulation before. We can say “in circulation” rather than released, for that is the best-known feature of the “basement tapes.” They were recorded as demos, as drafts, for fun, without an eye to release. However, as soon as 14 songs from the sessions emerged and made their way into the recording industry, other artists asked to cover them – and fans wanted to hear “the originals.” This quest for “the originals” led to the release of Great White Wonder in 1969. It was the first bootleg of modern times, featuring some of the sessions from the basement of Big Pink and those from the Red Room. An official release from Columbia Records, The Basement Tapes (1975), has 16 songs from those sessions, as well as new songs by the players who had been calling themselves the Hawks, but became known instead, simply, as The Band.
There were too many unreleased songs for the passionate interest to be quelled by the 1975 Basement Tapes, though, particularly after The Band split up and Dylan headed down a different road of carnival and celebration with the Rolling Thunder Revue. Bootlegs – scratchy versions that fans prized as better than none at all – kept trickling out, until the 109-track A Tree with Roots (also called The Genuine Basement Tapes) was released in 2001. On that long-awaited release, the songs are crackly, often draggy versions. But, one thing that comes through on A Tree with Roots, even when the sound fails, is the delight the musicians are taking in what they’re doing, and in each other’s company. As Dylan said of the sessions in the summer of 1969, “They were a kick to do. Fact, I’d do it all again. You know … that’s really the way to do a recording – in a peaceful, relaxed setting – in somebody’s basement. With the windows open … and a dog lying on the floor.”
The Introduction of Epic Heroes
When T Bone Burnett invited Taylor Goldsmith to participate in the Lost on the River project, Goldsmith was thrilled – and in some trepidation. “Part of me was like, is it okay? Can we do this? There was the fear of it being completed – some of these songs were just sketches. What if we can’t figure out how Bob Dylan meant for it to go?” Clues, for Goldsmith, were happily right there in the words: “You’d look, and here’s an idea like a ballad,” he said. He listened to The Basement Tapes – yet again – before he started recording. “But the only way that [Lost] was gonna be good was if we didn’t try to do it like they did.”
Goldsmith is one of the musicians on Lost with the closest connections to Dylan and The Band. Robbie Robertson asked Goldsmith’s band Dawes to be his backing band in 2011 for some television appearances – “he was so kind to us and so generous,” Goldsmith says. Then, in the winter of 2011, Dawes was invited, along with Jackson Browne (with whom they’d performed before), to a ramble at Helm’s place. Garth Hudson showed up that night, too. “It was unbelievable,” recalls Goldsmith softly, respectfully. “So much of what we grew up loving was right there in the room.” His brother Griffin, Dawes’ drummer, wept in Helm’s company. Then, during the spring of 2013, Dawes opened some shows for Dylan and his band. Asked to choose the most special thing, among many, for him about his time on the road with Dylan, Goldsmith says: “getting to witness someone who’s truly given himself over to his art."
Costello has opened for Dylan, too, and performed with him many times, from 1995 to 2007 to today. Jim James played an avatar of Dylan’s, or at least sang a stunningly good version of the Basement Tapes track “Goin’ to Acapulco,” in Todd Haynes’ 2007 film, I’m Not There.
On the Americanarama tour in 2013, James walked onstage to join Dylan and his band one spectacular night in Hoboken for The Band’s classic “The Weight.” Marcus Mumford has covered Dylan beautifully, most notably on “I Was Young When I Left Home” for the film Inside Llewyn Davis (2013).
Rhiannon Giddens both admired and enjoyed Dylan’s music, but had never met him, nor any of the other musicians on Lost, before Burnett – who worked with Giddens on The Hunger Games soundtrack in 2012 – invited her to record with them. Laughing, she admits, “I wasn’t a Dylanhead,” and hadn’t listened to the Basement Tape bootlegs before starting the project. To hear her tell it, this fact, rather than making her feel as if she had to go and do research and become influenced in a particular way, proved both refreshing and liberating.
The Journey, Part One
“Whynt’cha shut it off now, and see how it’s recording?” Dylan asks – the first words you hear on Basement Tapes Complete. No one obeys. So Dylan, in his singing voice now, begins to croon – sound without words – before spilling into a bluesy Caribbean wail on “Edge of the Ocean.” The words flow, then recede again, and an island theme drifts you out of the song. It is a distorted, grainy, but comforting and peaceful track that makes you feel right at home. Home was where all these songs came to pass, after all.
Initially, the musicians kick around covers: traditional classics like “Po’ Lazarus”; Clarence Williams’ “My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It”; Dewayne Blackwell’s “Mr. Blue”; Johnny Cash’s “Belshazzar,” “Big River,” and “Folsom Prison Blues”; Stan Kessler and Charlie Feathers’ “I Forgot to Remember to Forget”; Hank Williams’ “You Win Again”; Bob Nolan’s “Cool Water”; Brendan Behan’s “The Auld Triangle.” Yet even on the first disc, Dylan’s original tracks are mixed in – all works in progress, abandoned drafts, thoughts, suggestions.
In discussing “I’m Guilty of Loving You” – a song that didn’t make the cut – Rollins says that Hudson’s recorder “served as a kind of analog sketchpad for song ideas Dylan was working on. With a little more time and a phone call to Percy Sledge, this mid-tempo ballad might have yielded an interesting addition to the Dylan canon.”
Hudson has kept the tracks in chronological order, working with surviving labels and his own memory. So, start at the beginning of the six-disc Basement Tapes Complete, by all means. With so much to digest, though, one could become consumed while jumping around, hunting for something that can hit you right away. Among the unexpected finds is an unreleased version of “One Too Many Mornings” (Disc 5, Track 2). This is not, by definition, a “basement tape” but a solid-gold interloper of shadowy provenance that still belongs right here. The track did not exist among Hudson’s tapes but was, according to Rollins’s notes, “unearthed by Dylan’s music publishing company.” Rollins doesn’t supply detail as to when or where – but having this song now, wherever it’s from, is more than enough. It is a gift. The two leading voices on Basement Tapes Complete, Dylan’s and Manuel’s, complement each other perfectly. You expect to hear Dylan at the song’s slow start – but instead, touchingly, emotionally, Manuel begins it. Indeed, no one could sing as plain and sweetly as Richard Manuel, with his unique, beseeching gentleness fit more for an unearthly choir. The first verse of “One Too Many Mornings” is all his, and, like gentlemen, Dylan and the other musicians step back to make room for him to soar.
Listen to the rest of Disc 5, from the beginning, in increasing surprise and delight. Except for “One Too Many Mornings,” these are the songs recorded on Wittenberg Road. The sound may not be as “stellar or distinctive,” but the first version ever of “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Dylan and The Band, never in circulation until now? Here it is, slow and bluesy, with Dylan’s voice straining high and everyone coming in loud and long on “the answer, my friend … ” Hudson and Robertson both have lovely solos.
Robertson had never ceased to amaze by the summer of 1967; he had been so good forever, it seemed. Still, on these songs, his riffs and solos repeatedly recall Charlie McCoy’s admiring comment at the end of the studio take of “Leopardskin Pillbox Hat” that made it onto Blonde on Blonde in 1966: “Robbie, the whole world’ll marry ya on that one.” The two takes, particularly the first, of “Ain’t No More Cane” are beautiful, with an island lilt beginning to pull the rhythms as they play – The Band as a Canadian calypso band. Robertson then blazes through the blues of “My Woman She’s A-Leavin’.”
As you’re beginning to feel a sorrowful litany building up, “Santa-Fe” is a glorious, jolly, reeling break. Dylan’s voice exults over the rhymes, and The Band, so capable of wearing any, all, musical hats, transforms into a Canadian cantina band. This feel swells into the positively bordertown-saloon-like “Mary Lou, I Love You Too.” More blues spill over before Appalachian traditions join their Delta relatives: “900 Miles,” A.P. Carter’s “Wildwood Flower” (complete with autoharp), and “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean/One Kind Favor.” When an experimental jangle and tangle of instruments gives way to Dylan humming, then singing, “she’ll be comin’ round the mountain,” you can feel the energy rise as the musicians realize what song it is to be.
A couple of times, Dylan loses the lyrics. You can hear Manuel and Danko, off mic, singing every word, and Dylan picks up the thread again. Of all things, “Flight of the Bumblebee” is one of the best tracks on the whole side. Manuel’s rich, rolling piano, feeling as though it flew straight out of a rural church in the South, rises and falls with Dylan’s happy torch-singer voice. Dylan often sounds delighted with an old-fashioned crooner’s guise, making like a cross between Rudy Vallee and Frank Sinatra, and he’s loving it here.
That same disc dances on, with “Wild Wolf,” a mysterious plaint that sounds older than the hills and yet entirely new. “Goin’ to Acapulco” lays out a vacation about as much to be looked forward to as being lost in the rain in Juarez – in which the proposition of “gonna have some fun” has never sounded darker and more lamentable. “Gonna Get You Now” is a rompy yet somewhat threatening prospect made danceable by Danko. “If I Were A Carpenter” is a surprise perhaps, though Bobby Darin had had a hit with it the year before. Dorinda Morgan’s “Confidential” leads into a ringingly happy last version of “All You Have To Do Is Dream.” If the box set of Basement Tapes Complete should burst into flame, you get to thinking, you’d need to save Disc 5.
Apart from his sublime playing on nearly every track of Disc 5, Manuel’s finest moment on Basement Tapes Complete – two of the standout songs on the record – are on Disc 3: “I Shall Be Released” in two takes. On take one – Dylan’s first recording ever of his new song – languid keyboarding from Hudson and Manuel leads the beginning into a strong, almost pleading, vocal by Dylan and a midrange accompaniment by Manuel. The words are still in the process of being written; Dylan croons wordlessly over them on some spots in the chorus and in the last verse. Almost hiding, and then flowing out in the instrumental verse before the last, is Robertson’s lyric guitar. A little tickle on the piano ends this first take.
On take two, Manuel’s singing and love of gospel music shine, making this the sweetest version you might ever hear of this song. (“There was a Caravans song called ‘To Whom Shall I Turn’ that Richard listened to over and over,” Hudson told Griffin for the liners, when asked what The Band was listening to while they recorded that summer.) The rich, hollow, windswept instrumentals at the beginning melt into Dylan’s high tenor and clearly delivered verse, more precise now as he enunciates individual syllables. When Manuel joins on the chorus, higher still, floating above and then tumbling down on “from the west unto the east,” the song becomes, and remains, an old-time hymn.
Mystery and Intrigue as Songs Take Shape
Few of the songs on The Basement Tapes Complete are themselves complete, and therein lies another of its draws. Records don’t come out clean and perfect, tracks in order, every song finished and in place. Like a painting that begins with charcoaled lines long before the oils are mixed on a palette, like the marred lines and junked drafts and bad rhymes in need of mending that come from a poet’s pen, songs call for takes and retakes and new words and riffs before they’re done. Even then, they may not fit onto a record and may stay unreleased forever. Dylan, talking about The Basement Tapes on the radio with Mary Travers in 1975, spoke to that point: the tapes were born of “The Band and various other people, up there making music and planting gardens, and just watching time go by. So in the meantime we made this record, made this – actually, it wasn’t a record, it was just songs which we’d come, you know, to, er, this basement and record, out in the woods. That’s basically it, really.”
Songs come to pass in intriguing fragments and splinters, the little chips and bits of music in between the tracks – growls and throat clearings at the start, a descent into snickers or a shout of “all right!” at the end. Sometimes, as on “Roll on Train,” the incomplete and scarcely voiced lyrics don’t matter. What matters is the sound of the rise and fall of the vocal itself, setting a pace for Robertson to follow on his keening guitar. Dylan is excellent at this. Still, in concert today, his vocals set the path for the instruments to follow. The guitars, keyboards – even the drums – follow Dylan’s vocals like the little RCA Victor dog (whose relative sits facing the other way, uninterested, on the cover of The Basement Tapes 1975, and on the new box set) reacting to “his master’s voice.”
On “Hills of Mexico,” for example, the lyrics break down. When you muff a lyric, it shows, while an instrumental can sometimes cover by turning a mistake into a new riff. As Rollins points out, you couldn’t look up the words on the Internet then – you had to just sing what you remembered. Damn the torpedoes, the men just let their instruments take over. They play companionably while Dylan thinks, mutters, then recommences. The song is never done, but hearing it continue is magical. So is listening to the ripple and rock of “Million Dollar Bash (Take 1),” which cuddles you into a rocking-chair rhythm and lets the instruments swing you along through the wackadoo words until you fetch up comfortably into the ooh, baby oooh-ees and join in with them heartily. On “Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread,” Dylan’s snappy, sometimes silly, sparkling wordplay is gleefully evident.
The lyrics, when present, can be blurry and delivered in yelps and howls and croons, and, on occasion, by singers apparently as drunk as lords. Maybe they were. But, before you settle on this, consider, please, the songs on which such festive glee is the mood: “Please Mrs. Henry” claims they’ve been “drinkin’ too many kegs,” and you’d believe it. Remember, though, that’s exactly how these songs are supposed to sound – so that’s the voice you put on for them. Conversely, “The Auld Triangle” is a lament, veering into a dirge, sung by a prisoner yearning to be free. It’s accordingly drawn-out and in tone with its theme. “I’m Not There” doesn’t even sound like Dylan until the first “I believe,” the vocal is so dark and sad.
By the fourth disc, Dylan’s original songs have taken over and the sessions are flying high. “Listen,” he says at the beginning of the opening track, “Tears of Rage (Take 1).” Then, he and Manuel join each other slowly, yet deliver the lyrics jubilantly, as if their voices are holding hands. By the third take (the version with overdubs added that was released on The Basement Tapes in 1975), the song is complete – you feel it, and they knew it. The men shift to “Quinn the Eskimo,” and again, take after take, you get to hear a complete song taking shape.
Said Dylan in 1968: “You see, it’s all grown so serious, the writing-song business. It’s not that serious. The songs don’t painfully come out. They come out in a trick or two, or from something you might overhear. I’m just like any other songwriter, you pick up the things that are given to you. ‘Quinn the Eskimo,’ I can’t remember how that came about. I know the phrase came about, I believe someone was just talking about Quinn, the Eskimo.”
Dylan would be upstairs, Hudson recalls in The Basement Tapes Complete liner notes, writing songs in the living room. He would then go downstairs with his lyrics. “Running down to the cellar and recording it right away with us: ‘Million Dollar Bash,’ ‘Sign on the Cross,’ I think ‘Don’t Ya Tell Henry,’ would be good examples of this process. It was amazing.”
Even the incomplete moments can amaze. “Open the Door, Homer” is never quite a done song, but it makes everyone – particularly Dylan, who cracks up during the first version – very happy. The first time was indeed the charm here, as Rollins notes: the rest of the takes sound slap-happy, which, though not resulting in a finished version, is not a bad thing in terms of artistic creation at all, when you get to witness it. When, on take two, Dylan slows everything down and goes into a bluesy torch-singer style with a rolling piano behind him, it doesn’t work – but it’s grand to listen to all the same.
“Clothes Line Saga” is straight-faced parody, if that’s not too paradoxical. Dylan’s voice sinks in a sad, ballady start, as the lyrics about clothes on a line, refusing to dry, spin out in a folksy, ridiculous way:
Why has the vice president gone mad downtown? Nobody knows. “Gee, that’s too bad.” It’s “jes’ something we’re gonna have to forget.” Ma’s concern is solely whether or not “the clothes are still wet.” “Woo-hoo, I jus’ do what I’m told,” Dylan half speaks, half yips. On the safety tape of the track, “Clothes Line Saga” is listed as “Answer to Ode.” Perhaps it’s an answer indeed, as Rollins suggests, to Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode To Billie Joe” (1966). Perhaps it’s an answer to an ode from much longer ago – back in classical times, when simple stories of men engaged in doing what they were trained to do – and loved to do – ended up as sagas when time passed.
From the finished to the fragments, the songs of The Basement Tapes Complete poke fun at the very word “complete.” The record of an ongoing musical process is still being written, of course, every time Dylan or one of the former members of The Band performs or records one of the songs from these sessions, every time another artist covers one. The way in which the musicians warm up with songs they all know by heart, equally as likely to be doo-wop or hillbilly, rockabilly or traditional standard, and then fly into something reminiscent but entirely new, instruments and choruses following Dylan’s lead, will never be concluded; it’s constantly in motion. You discover something different – a new note, an emphasis, a snicker, a flub, a perfect riff – every time you listen.
The way these songs reel out is, again, almost painterly: a static image can, strangely, be fuller of eternally captured, ongoing action than any other medium. Think of the children in Winslow Homer’s painting “Snap the Whip.” They are, you know, frozen in the paint, models long since grown old and dead, in a field that existed, perhaps even then, only in the imagination. When the instruments, including the voices, begin making the music of The Basement Tapes, it’s as if they all clasp hands and play in exactly this way: with freedom, yet joined; with life, with joy. In 1985, Dylan described a song as “a reflection of what I see around me all the time.” From the spring of 1967, what he saw around him were the Catskills, his family, and “only a few close friends.” The result is here for us to hold, forever.
L to R: Marcus Mumford, Rhiannon Giddens, T Bone Burnett, Elvis Costello, Jim James, and Taylor Goldsmith. photo courtesy Big Hassle
The Journey, Part Two
Dylan left many unconnected ends during that blazingly fertile summer and winter of 1967. Not long ago, he gave some of those songs – in various degrees of completion – to T Bone Burnett, with permission to record them. Burnett invited five musicians to join him in the project, which resulted in a collaboration that echoes and complements, and yet is quite different from, The Basement Tapes Complete.
The multi-instrumentalists, composers, and singer-songwriters of Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes, unlike the band whose lead they were following, had not toured together around the world – or even ever played together – when they convened for two weeks to work with Dylan’s lyrics, and with each other. They all had their own bands and careers, their own musical backgrounds and styles, and knew the story of The Basement Tapes to very differing degrees. That did not stop Lost on the River from being a remarkably original and fresh collaborative work, and a worthy new companion to the older recordings. In fact, it may have helped.
Even the cover image for Lost shows this dual spirit. The musicians, with their instruments, stand ranged calmly together, looking like an Elliott Landy photo of The Band, perhaps, but nothing like the circus cacophony on the 1975 cover of The Basement Tapes.
Hank Williams supplied the title for Lost, but, as is ever the case with Dylan’s borrowings and homages to others, he makes it new. His words are nothing like Williams’, and the two versions of “Lost on the River” here – one by Elvis Costello and one by Rhiannon Giddens – are nothing alike. “It’d be nice if [Bob Dylan] did Elvis’ ‘Lost on the River,’” says Giddens. Goldsmith agrees: “Imagining what Bob could sing, I think Elvis’ ‘Lost’ or I’d love [to hear him do] ‘Liberty Street’ or ‘Down on the Bottom’ in that rocking Bob Dylan way.”
There are a generous 20 songs on Lost, ranging from the funky, gritty “Married to My Hack” – sung with a genial weariness by Costello – to the snappy, rappy “Nothin’ To It,” with James relishing every one of Dylan’s words. That the words are, literally, where the music is coming from is clear, and reflected in the videos released for the album so far. Sheets of paper, patterned with Dylan’s distinctive printing, are directing the sound.
Although the artist singing each track on “Lost” was the primary composer of that song, Giddens says that from the moment Burnett handed out the words, the sharing began. “We all got the same set of lyrics, and just started. Everyone was drawn to what they felt most strongly about – there were multiple versions of some songs, and some aren’t on this record.”
Goldsmith says simply: “We wrote all that music together.” He also lets us know there are more versions that may, in true Basement-Tape style, emerge at a later date. “We recorded so many songs. We kept doing a different person’s version of each one, like the title track and the ‘Hidee Ho’… . It was amazing to see how differently it came out.”
Giddens was drawn to “Duncan and Jimmy,” which suited her traditional roots. “This one’s a hoe-down, I said when I saw it.” She turned it into a head-on, rollicking foot-stomper, but was thrilled when James offered something extra – “the wonderful thing about collaboration,” she said. It was his idea “to use the different chords underneath” that twist the conclusion of the refrain into a minor fall, and to add the plaintive mystery that accompanies the words “has anybody seen ’em?”
For her “Spanish Mary,” Giddens used a replica of an 1850s banjo, with gut strings, to get the “minstrel” sound she wanted to accompany Dylan’s lyrics. “There’s a Caribbean feel to the lyrics,” she says, which mention Kingston, Jamaica, and the southern seas. “I wanted a song that harkens back to those times.”
One thing even the most disparate songs on Lost on the River share is a clean, clear, stripped-down sound – as if, instead of being in a fully equipped contemporary studio, the musicians were indeed in a basement or home studio, with just enough mics and a good reel-to-reel. Was this planned? “Nah,” said Goldsmith, “it was a byproduct of how fast we were working … . We didn’t take a lot of extra time to make things bigger and fatter.” They were certainly directed, but not overproduced, by Burnett. Giddens explains: “In a business like this [these days], you can’t recreate The Basement Tapes. But you can say, we have a wonderful studio here. Let’s do it in G. Throw multi-instrumentalists in with each other, and let it take shape as goes along … . T Bone let good stuff happen. He knew when to push a little, he knew when to pull, and he knew when to sit back and let it go.”
What does Dylan think of Lost on the River? He’s yet to make a statement. Giddens, however, says happily, beginning to laugh before the end of the sentence, “Well, obviously he didn’t hate it, or it wouldn’t be getting out there.”
Homecoming (The End, for Now)
Given the entirety of this epic tale, it’s important to not waste too much time and energy trying to compare The Basement Tapes Complete and Lost on the River. If one seems traditional, and the other markedly contemporary, remember Dylan’s perfect merging of those two elements as far back as 1968: “I was always with the traditional song. I just used electricity to wrap it up in.”
Enjoy the albums together. They continue and celebrate the best things about American music – call it Americana if you like, but make sure that definition, in Walt Whitman’s phrasing, can “contain multitudes.” It does, after all, include sea chanteys and ballads sung by people sailing across the Atlantic to get here, island lilts from the southern seas and Acadian laments from the north, Delta blues, mountain strings, Western swings, Nashville notes, barbershop doo-wop, big-band crooning, that good old rock and roll, garage-band rhythms, pop, post-pop, and everything indie and in-between. Then add every style not on the list.
As Dylan said in 1997, “Every one of the records I’ve made has emanated from the entire panorama of what America is to me. America, to me, is a rising tide that lifts all ships, and I’ve never really sought inspiration from other types of music.”
Indeed, listening to these two collections over and over for days makes you part of the journey through American music that started on wooded Catskill mountainsides back in the early spring of 1967, when the leaves were off the trees and the only place you wanted to be was inside with a fire, your friends, and your music. Though the “basement tapes” are now complete, the journey is not. What about those versions of songs recorded for Lost on the River and not yet released? They are a part of it now. Giddens has written a new song about her experience of working with the other musicians on the album that we can look forward to. And, in the past few years, Bob Dylan, still on the road and heading for another joint, performs songs made in those Woodstock days by him and his friends: “This Wheel's On Fire,” “The Weight,” and others.
The days of Bob Dylan recording with The Band there are past, but Big Pink is still available as a recording studio, should you wish to try it out. The Red Room and the Wittenberg Road home studios are a long way away, but what was made in those homes provides new records and new live moments today. Shut yourself up with The Basement Tapes Complete. Dive into Lost on the River. It's not often you have past, present, and future in your ears – and your hand – all at the same time.
Photo credits: first two photos by Eliott Landy, included in The Basement Tapes Complete booklet; Lost on the River band photo courtesy Big Hassle.
- The Bootleg Series Vol. 11, The Basement Tapes Complete, Bob Dylan and The Band. Sony/Legacy, release date Nov. 11, 2014.
- Lost On The River: The New Basement Tapes. Electromagnetic Recordings/Harvest Records (Capitol Music Group), release date Nov. 4, 2014.
- Showtime documentary, Lost Songs: The Basement Tapes Continued, directed by Sam Jones, premieres in November 2014.