Given how much has already been written about the tapes that Bob Dylan and the group who would become The Band recorded together in their homes in Woodstock and Saugerties in 1967 and early 1968, it might seem as though there is little left to say. Countless Dylan biographies have explored these influential sessions. The most famous and influential Basement Tapes exegesis — Greil Marcus’ 1994 book Invisible Republic — uses the recordings as a context for free-associative, pseudo-historical ruminations: specifically, about their relationship to Harry Smith’s influential 1952 collection of ’20s and ’30s 78s and field recordings, Anthology of American Folk Music. In Marcus’s analysis, Dylan and the Hawks become mere vessels for something latent in the cumulative American consciousness — the actual mechanics of the music’s creation is of secondary importance. On the other hand, Sid Griffin’s Million Dollar Bash is too by-the-numbers, guiding the reader through the reels track-by-track. What has been noticeably missing amid all of this is a full commercial release of the music itself: an Ur-Basement Tapes which might provide a fixed point of reference for discussions, or even the last word on the subject. Finally, nearly half a century after the basement meetings, we have the complete sessions themselves, which debunk several popular misconceptions and offers plenty of new insight.
Stories of the sessions in the “Red Room” at Dylan’s Hi Lo Ha estate and the basement of the Hawks’ “Big Pink” house often begin with a dramatic exodus: Dylan getting (an hour and a half) away from the ratrace, abandoning the already-imploding dream of the roaring ’60s and adopting a simpler existence. In his autobiography Chronicles Vol. 1, Dylan remembers: “The events of the day, all the cultural mumbo-jumbo were imprisoning my soul…I was determined to put myself beyond the reach of it all.” The motorcycle accident of ’66 that necessitated the move from Greenwich Village to Woodstock is positioned in many histories like an intercession of fate: the apple that fell on his head, inspiring him to lose the shock of curls and begin a new way of life. But while the crash made it possible for Dylan to head upstate, it was not the arbiter of some immediate existential crisis; Dylan did not go to Woodstock with the intention of reinventing himself and abandoning his career. Upon arriving, he continued editing a tour documentary for ABC — a project to which he had previously committed — while spending time with his family. In a 1969 Rolling Stone interview, Dylan claimed that he had fully planned on “going back to doing what I was doing” following recovery. The shifts in Dylan’s musical mettle came during the sessions, and were a result of them.
The tour doc — not an overwhelming desire to be free from the strictures of modern urban life and culture— was the impetus for the Hawks to begin trickling upstate. (The aborted doc soon became the widely circulated bootleg Eat The Document.) Dylan needed actors for some staged scenes. Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman (who was still paying the Hawks for the 60-plus date Dylan tour he’d had to cancel) encouraged the band to make the move permanent, and to develop some music for their own planned debut as a standalone group. At the same time, Dylan had his own commission from Grossman to work on songs to sell to other artists (in a grumpy mood, Dylan once characterized the whole upstate period as “being PUSHED…into coming up with more songs.”) The tape recorder the Hawks’ Garth Hudson had brought upstate offered Dylan a perfect way to get some of his conscripted writing done in a fun way, and the Hawks — as a favor to the singer they were being paid to not back — agreed to help him work through some ideas.
With these goals always at the fore, the year in the basement was hardly a retreat from the music business. Dylan handed off the most fully realized basement originals (some of which were co-writes with Hawks members) to Grossman, and a number of these charted as singles for other artists. (“Too Much of Nothing” for Peter, Paul and Mary, “Quinn the Eskimo” for Manfred Mann and, later, “You Ain’t Goin Nowhere” for the Byrds). The Hawks, with Dylan’s help, set the framework for the first Band album. The self-directed atmosphere of the sessions seems to have inspired Dylan to take more control over the course of his career, and at his behest Grossman renegotiated a generous new contract with Columbia which did not require Dylan to tour, gave him ultimate control over the master tapes for his albums and secured him a more significant percentage of royalties. Under his new contract, he took a break from Big Pink to record John Wesley Harding quickly and cheaply in his new mode; as producer Bob Johnston recalled, Dylan “knocked [the songs] out like demos.” It would become his fastest-selling album to date, its sales enhanced by the high demand for a new Bob Dylan LP following his year out of the spotlight.
Looking at the rising and falling action surrounding the basement sessions in this relatively unromantic manner is helpful for understanding them in the way that the new set encourages: as a logical part of Dylan’s career, rather than the stuff of legend. Chronologically ordered for the first time under Garth Hudson’s supervision and cleaned up sonically, the 139-track collection illustrates a strikingly linear trajectory. The first two discs of songs are almost entirely covers, or variations on pre-existing material. Increasingly well-developed originals begin to pop up as the ritual of meeting and recording became more comfortable. Eventually, we hear begin to hear significant stylistic changes: first, the adoption of a new, mellow recitation style (what Marcus dubs “the American voice” — see “Lo and Behold!” and “Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread”) and on the later reels, the Nashville Skyline croon (see the charming Autoharp-driven “Wildwood Flower” and “One Kind Favor”). Blonde on Blonde‘s nasal sneer falls away gradually, and with it surreal lyrics.
The set also demonstrates that, despite the frequent focus on Dylan’s interest in “roots” music, the basement recordings were primarily steeped in the popular music of 15 years earlier or less. The Hawks each brought their own distinct influences to the table, most of which didn’t have much to do with folk music in the traditional sense. Richard Manuel’s piano playing was informed by boogie-woogie and Jerry Lee Lewis, and Hudson’s organ work by classical and church music. The sound of the band, at this point, was heavily colored by the years they spent playing rockabilly and country with Ronnie Hawkins. Robbie Robertson once admitted to having mixed feelings about the field recordings and folk records Dylan played for him: “I didn’t care that much for what he was turning me onto, [but] when he sang those songs I liked them a lot.” When the group covers traditional songs, the arrangements often sound similar the ’50s pop and soft-country hits that constitute the vast majority of the sessions’ non-original music (see “Ol Roison the Beau” or “Bonnie Ship the Diamond”). Additionally, the songs that sound the most “traditional” are usually imitation folk songs, such as “The Auld Triangle” (a song written for theater in the mid-’50s in the style of an Irish ballad) and “The Bells of Rhymney” (Welsh poetry from the ’30s set to music by Pete Seeger in ’57, and popularized again by the Byrds in ’65).
Even claims that the Basement Tapes material was unrelated to music of the current time are overstated. It’s true that Dylan and the Hawks weren’t banging out tunes by Donovan or the Association, but the stark electric blues of John Hooker and Muddy Waters, and even the country-blues of John Hurt, was foundational to both the sound of the Woodstock sessions (“Roll On Train,” “Tupelo,” “I’m Alright,” “Get Your Rocks Off”) and many rock ‘n’ roll bands who were making a huge impact in 1967, including the Moby Grape, Canned Heat and Big Brother and the Holding Company. Dylan and the Hawks also ran through several songs by active pop-folk acts like Ian and Sylvia and Eric von Schmidt (a mere two years later, the inclusion of this type of song on Dylan’s Self-Portrait would be regarded as one of the major strikes against the album). What exactly resonated for Dylan in something like Ian Tyson’s “Song for Canada” will never be totally clear, but with Robertson’s vigorous Chet Atkins-esque playing and Dylan’s spirited delivery, it’s clear the band was having a great deal of fun roughening up the tune around the edges. Their take on Tyson’s “Four Strong Winds” (a hit for Ian and Sylvia and Bobby Bare in the mid-60s) is also effective, featuring an unusually pretty vocal performance.
Despite the inclusion of half-deleted fragments, instrumental noodling and incidental chatter (discussion of syllables for the harmonies, changing the key, cutting the band off after too many verses), listening to The Basement Tapes Complete is a wholly different experience than perusing the complete sessions for a studio album. There were no protocols and few practical considerations; choosing when to record was a purely creative gesture. The eternal question of what prompted Dylan to record or expunge (there were frequent tapeovers, which results in some of the sessions’ fragmented, interstitial material) adds to the allure of some of the sessions’ best recordings. Frequently, the set features strings of songs in a similar style, or two or three wildly contrasting takes of a single original, but some tracks — including the faux-gospel ballad “Sign on the Cross” and the odd, acoustic strum-along “I’m Not There” — appear unanticipated. They are not related stylistically to the songs that surround them in Hudson’s chronology. In a ’68 Sing Out! interview with the New Lost City Ramblers’ John Cohen, Dylan described: “Of course, there are times you just pick up an instrument…you’ll just be uuuhhhh [hum] whatever it brings out in the voice, you’ll write those words down. And they might not mean anything to you at all, and you just go on, and that’ll be what happens. Now I don’t do that anymore. If I do, I just keep it for myself.” This statement might reasonably relate not only to the tapes’ frequent jokey stand-in lyrics (i.e. the talk of feeding cats and “you old basement noise” on “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere-Take 1″) but also the elliptical monologue in “I’m Not There,” which somehow manages to be deeply evocative even though it is clearly being improvised (“Well, it’s too hard to stay here and I don’t want to leave/ It’s so bad but amusing when she’s hard, too hard to leave”). Songs like this offer rare but partially encrypted insight into Dylan’s process, and remain unique in his catalogue.
The Basement Tapes Complete threatens to do precisely what Harry Smith tried not to with his Anthology: contextualize and catalogue. Flouting ethnomusicological tradition, Smith bootlegged his personal record collection, used a track order inspired by the five elements, and annotated each song with cryptic, news-headline-like poems. By (as Marcus puts it) constructing his own “internal narratives and orchestrated communities” within the collection, Smith hoped to preserve a certain mystery and timelessness he found to be inherent in the recordings — and perhaps, their subjectivity. Like the Anthology, the original Basement Tapes have always retained a particular mystique. There is the feeling that we are eavesdropping on private rituals when we listen, an impression enhanced historically by their dissemination through talismanic, fan-made bootleg albums. But the new “complete” set, in its semi-scholarly presentation, in no way robs this music of its power and peculiarity; it clarifies it, and puts it in a context that is simultaneously aesthetically and historically meaningful. The narrative of The Basement Tapes is easy and enjoyable to follow, but it has never before been so fully and conscientiously laid out.