Bobby’s in the Basement


…. and the Band’s down there as well. The tape recorders were on and over 100 songs were recorded on and off over several months in the summer and autumn of 1967. The music gradually filtered out into the wider world in dribs and drabs as the Basement Tapes. First up was an acetate pressing distributed to other musicians and friends. This led to hits for Manfred Mann ( Mighty Quinn ) and Julie Driscoll with Brian Augur and Trinity ( Wheel’s on Fire ) among others. The Basement Tapes was released as a double album in 1975 and in the early 1990s a 5 CD completist box set was released. Greil Marcus provides tasting notes to each song once his story of the Basement Tapes has been told.

Hillary Clinton told us that it takes a village to raise a child. In Marcus’ reading it takes a whole country to rear a Nobel Laureate. Bob as the distillation of the restless, ever questing, democratic American spirit (TM) etc. So:

  • John Winthrop’s City on a Hill speech to the Puritans as they sailed across the Atlantic
  • Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address – “…until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be repaid with another drawn with the sword.”
  • Martin Luther King “I have a dream”

Add to this mix such incidents as the West Virginian Miner’s war of the early 1920’s, the lynchings and killings associated with the Civil Rights movement and America’s war on Vietnam and we can see how history is bearing down on Big Pink in upstate New York.

There is also in the background the histories of folk and blues music in America. Recordings of these styles of music only started in the early 1920s when it was discovered that there was a market for “race” and “hillbilly” records. The quality of the recordings improved with the advent of electronic recording technology from 1926.

Alan Lomax took mobile recording facilities into the rural south in the 1930s to make recordings for the Library of Congress of blues, folk and gospel singers and much of the later collection is now accessible online. John Hammond in the late 1930s produced the From Spirituals to Swing concerts in New York showcasing the varieties of black American music.

By 1952 all of this musical archaeology was very much old news when along came Harry Smith who took it upon himself to put out a 6 LP set called the Anthology of American Folk Music. Harry Smith was the bohemian child of Aleister Crowley and Madam Blavatsky adherents from Seattle who had a varied career from anthropologist to film maker to record curator. The Anthology of American Folk Music consisted of 84 songs largely recorded between 1926 and 1932 in the American south. The 1932 cutoff date was a bit arbitrary but this was the year when sales of “race” and ‘hillbilly” records had fallen to 7% of their late 1920’s levels as a result of the Depression. During the war warehouses were emptied and many old records from that era were cheaply available. The Anthology was based on Smith’s collection of these records, and was dubiously legal at best in terms of copyright law if anyone had bothered to look.

The Anthology was an important collection in the birth of the Folk music revival of the 1950s and was devoured by aficionados such as the young Bob Dylan. The Newport Folk Festival started in 1959 and became a major gathering for the north east US urban folk audience. Soon after this some of the artists who had recorded and performed the records included in the Anthology were rediscovered and brought up on stage at Newport for late life career revivals.

Bob Dylan noted of Bruce Springsteen the simple chronological fact that he had been present at the Folk Festivals where these last living links with the old, weird America performed while Springsteen, eight years younger, had not. And so the last living links with age old pre industrial and pre entertainment industry musical traditions ceased to walk among us.

Not only the weight of 350 years of American history and music were bearing down on Bob Dylan that summer but also his own history. The motorcycle accident in late 1966 had slowed Bob down for the first time since the young Minnesota Jew had transformed himself into the all American troubadour, the successor to Woody Guthrie. He had become the idol of the Folk movement by composing and performing instant anthems such as Blowin’ in the Wind, Masters of War, Hard Rain and others. The acclamation of the folk festivals was followed up with his canonisation as the “spokesman for a generation” tag along with pop music success. At the age of 23 he had spoken with both JFK and MLK.

He spectacularly kissed off his career as a folk singing generational spokesman at Newport in 1965 when he walked on stage with an electric guitar and a rock band in tow. The furore grew and grew through his tours in 1965 and 1966. Levon Helm bailed on the tour part way through in fear of potential crowd violence ( from the peace loving folkies ). The tour of the UK was increasingly bitter and increasingly loud and included the cry of “Judas” on occasion.

So it had been quite a wild ride for Bob Dylan, even before the motorbike accident. Plenty to process in his short life up to 1967.

Of course we should not forget not only his obvious musical talent but also remember his omnivorous musical magpie brain processing everything from Woody Guthrie, the Anthology, Elvis, the Beatles, right up to Bobby Gentry’s Ode to Billie Jo, the summer hit of 1967. “Why am I always the one who must be the thief?”

The Band’s view at the time was that they were just jamming along, working stuff up which Bob might come back to later and polish up. They just played old stuff, new stuff, alternate takes, parodies, whatever, with a great deal of creative freedom because it wasn’t thought of as a definitive “record”. Thus the Basement Tapes came about, and 30 years later Greil Marcus wrote it all up in his usual portentous, digressive, annotated Ken Burns style of rock criticism.

1997 when the book was written was an interesting phase of the future Nobel Laureate’s career as he had wandered off into some form of Christian experience in the late 70s and many saw his musical creativity in decline for a decade until he returned to form in the late 80s with some better new material. He followed this up in the 90s with two albums of old blues and country covers. His albums subsequent to the book have helped to enhance his career and he has continued touring up until the present day.

He added a second string to his bow capitalising on his musical magpie brain by producing three seasons of Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio hour where he provided us with his personal jukebox covering songs from a wide and eclectic playlist of mainly American music from the 1920s up to the White Stripes. Each season was memorialised with a double CD and I can’t recommend them highly enough. You cain’t beat that old weird America. And so the devourer of Harry Smith and the protégé of John Hammond became their worthy successor: a curator of all that he saw as vital in the music of the past that should be handed on to the future.


About Greg

Middle aged male, resident at the finest of all latitudes, 37. Reputedly an indoor cricketer.
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