Sunday, November 23, 2014

Bob Dylan & The Band – The Basement Tapes Complete

The Bootleg Series Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete

The not-intended-for-release material recorded by Bob Dylan and The Band in 1967 is probably the most mythologized set of recordings ever – and was the start of the bootleg record movement.

In 1975, there was an official release of The Basement Tapes in a 2-LP – later 2-CDs – set that included 16 tracks by Dylan and The Band and another eight of The Band on their own.

The Basement Tapes Complete – 138 tracks on six CDs – goes way beyond that initial set. The eight songs by The Band are not included; they, or at least, most of them, were recorded years later. And there were apparently overdubs added to some of the tracks prior to the 1975 release.

While I’ve heard bootlegs of some of the other 100-plus tracks that have now had official release with The Basement Tapes Complete, listening to these six CDs over the past three weeks has been revelatory and I was reminded again of an essay – Bob Dylan at 70 – that I wrote in 2011.

“As I noted in my book review of Bob Dylan in America by Sean Wilentz in the current issue of Sing Out! magazine, I’ve long thought that one of the reasons I so appreciate so much of Bob Dylan’s oeuvre is that (I think) we’ve listened to so much of the same music. To the traditional folk and blues songs, and to so many of the musicians who played them. When Dylan sang, 'no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell,' I knew what he was talking about because I’ve listened to all those old Blind Willie McTell records. When he borrows lines or settings from Woody Guthrie or Lead Belly or others, I know where they come from. Dylan’s music is rooted ever so strongly in what Greil Marcus termed the 'old weird America,' the folk music and the folk-rooted blues and country music that developed in particular regional locations and began to spread everywhere in the first half of the 20th century.

“This leads me to the point I wanted to make when I started writing this little essay. Even before Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, there have been commentators who’ve said that Dylan left folk music behind. I don’t think that’s at all true. To this day, Dylan’s songwriting continues to be rooted in the 'old weird America.' Dylan didn’t leave folk music behind when he embraced rock ‘n’ roll, he changed what was possible in a folk music context; both in how it’s played and how it’s expressed.”

So many of the songs on The Basement Tapes Complete reinforce my thoughts about in that essay about the traditional folk and blues songs the musicians who played them, but to that, I would add some of his contemporary peers. I’ve listened to those same folks whose material turns up here (and also on Another Self Portrait). Some have been people I’ve known over the years – several have been friends.

The Band’s guitarist Robbie Robertson – who would go on to write most of their original material – has explained that many of the early Basement Tapes sessions were Dylan “educating us a little” about folk music. The repertoire Dylan taught to The Band at those sessions is fascinating to me. Folk songs, blues, country songs and covers of material by the likes of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Ian & Sylvia, Pete Seeger, Tim Hardin, and others. Fascinating stuff.

Along with Dylan and a few others like Tom Paxton and Judy Collins, the stellar Canadian folk duo of Ian & Sylvia had a lot to do with my being drawn to folk music as a kid in the ‘60s. So, it was particularly interesting for me to see the strong connection (which I briefly discussed in an exchange of messages with Wayne Turiansky) to them. Dylan offers versions of several their original songs including Ian Tyson’s classic “Four Strong Winds”; a couple of takes of Ian and Sylvia’s “The French Girl,” one of my favorites of their songs; and “Song for Canada,” co-written by Ian and journalist-broadcaster Peter Gzowski in the mid-‘60s as an early Anglo-Canadian response to the separatist strain of the brand of Quebec nationalism that began to emerge in the province’s then-ongoing Quiet Revolution.

There were also several other songs Ian & Sylvia recorded before Dylan and The Band worked on them in ’67. While I’d bet Dylan was probably as familiar as Ian and Sylvia were with the sources for these songs, it’s still interesting to note that the list includes Johnny Cash’s “Big River”; the cowboy song “Spanish is the Loving Tongue,” actually a setting of the poem “A Border Affair” by Charles Badger Clark; Brendan Behan’s “The Auld Triangle,” recorded by Ian & Sylvia as “The Royal Canal”; the country song “A Satisfied Mind”; and the traditional songs “Po’ Lazarus” and “Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies.”

To that list you could also add a couple of Dylan’s originals from The Basement Tapes sessions – “Quinn the Eskimo,” recorded by Ian & Sylvia as “The Mighty Quinn” and “This Wheel’s on Fire,” a co-write with The Band’s Rick Danko – that Ian & Sylvia recorded right around the same time, as well as “Tears of Rage,” a co-write with The Band’s Richard Manuel, that Ian & Sylvia recorded less than a year later. With multiple takes of some songs, I count an Ian & Sylvia connection to at least 15 tracks. Amazing.

Among the other covers that particularly interested me are Eric Von Schmidt’s “Joshua Gone Barbados,” a favorite song of mine since the ‘60s, and “Rock Salt and Nails,” an early song written by my late friend, Bruce “Utah” Phillips.

The version of “Joshua Gone Barbados,” the story of the leader of the island country of St. Vincent taking a vacation while crisis envelopes his society, is incomplete. But, still, I find it fascinating that Dylan was working on it. (For really great versions of “Joshua Gone Barbados” seek out recordings by Von Schmidt, Tom Rush, Dave Van Ronk, and Fourtold. My favorite version is by Johnny Cash.)

I saw Utah Phillips perform at least a hundred times over the years – including dozens of concerts I produced myself – and not once did I ever hear him sing “Rock Salt and Nails,” easily his best known song. Decades ago. I asked him about the song and he told me it was a piece he wrote to clear his mind of anger after the break-up of his first marriage. But, once he got the anger off his chest, he had no more need – or desire – to ever sing the song again. He said he only sang it once when it was freshly written, for Rosalie Sorrels, and it was Rosalie who started its spread to so many other artists.

I mentioned that Bruce said he wrote the song in anger and, indeed, the song concludes with a verse that he admitted was misogynous. So, I’ve always found it interesting that so many women – Rosalie, Joan Baez, Kate Wolf, the Short Sisters, among others – have sung the song. My guess is that Dylan, like so many others, both women and men, was attracted to the gut-wrenching emotions the song captures so brilliantly.

And, as much I could talk about so many more of the folk songs and covers of other songwriters, I do need to say a few words about some of the original material Dylan produced in this period and that was captured in those sessions.

Certainly among the highlights are the two very different versions of “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” The first take, which I’d never heard before, seems to be Dylan goofing around with the tune and coming up with verses off the top of his head, while the second take are the verses that became classic. Was that a peek inside his songwriting process or was he just having fun? I suspect the latter and it’s a lot of fun to hear.

Other highlights include double and triple takes of such great and enduring songs as “I Shall Be Released,” “Too Much of Nothing,” and “Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood).”

The six CDs are enclosed within a hard cover book that includes a couple of fine essays on the Basement Tapes and the set also includes a second, beautifully presented, hard cover book of photos.

Although many of the tracks on The Basement Tapes Complete are themselves incomplete, it is an endlessly fascinating look at the process Dylan was employing in those productive months of 1967 and a great addition to the old weird Americana that is so much a part of what folk music is.

And, it’s more than fascinating, to understand how much the lessons rubbed off on The Band. When they would emerge the following year with Music from Big Pink, it was obvious that they had fully assimilated folk music into their rock ‘n’ roll and R&B essence.

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--Mike Regenstreif


  1. This is quite interesting, in part no doubt because your reading and experience of Dylan's music are so similar to my own. Like you, I don't think Dylan "abandoned" folk music; he simply (or not so simply) found a way to re-imagine its possibilities and embed it within a contemporary sensibility. Those of us who know folk music, I've noticed, hear his music differently from rock critics and fans, who often seem tin-eared. That's one reason Greil Marcus's book was so welcome. My own observations are here:

    Incidentally, the Bruce Phillips song you call "Rock, Salt, and Nails" is actually "Rock Salt and Nails." The first two words refer to a single substance, rock salt, not to two separate ones.

  2. Thanks for the correction on the "Rock Salt and Nails" title, Jerome. I've corrected the text above.