Artists of the week: Bob Dylan & The Band
The history behind the recording of the source material of what would be forever known as The Basement Tapes is stuff legends are made of.
Having transformed music and culture during the early 60s, Dylan turned his back to his “voice of a generation” status and reached unparalleled heights across 1965 and 1966 through the release of three historic albums, a controversial ‘electric’ performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival and wildly polarizing tours of the United States and Europe. Dylan‘s mercurial rise and prodigious outpouring of work during that decade came to an abrupt halt in July 1966 when he was reported to have been in a serious motorcycle accident in upstate New York.
While Dylan was concealed from the public’s gaze during an extended period of convalescence in 1967, he was joined by elements of the Hawks (his ex-world tour of 1965-66 back-up band) in the basement of a small house, dubbed “Big Pink” by the group, in West Saugerties, New York. Throughout several months, Dylan, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and, later, Levon Helm (aka The Band) recorded more than a hundred tracks together, comprising original compositions, contemporary covers and traditional material. Dylan‘s new songwriting moved away from the urban sensibility and extended narratives that had characterized his most recent albums, toward songs that, whether humorous, serious or religious, were definitely more intimate and rootsy, directly drawing on many styles of traditional American music.
These songs, which circulated widely in unofficial form in the following years, mounted a major stylistic challenge to rock musicians in the late sixties, dominated by the hippie movement and psychedelic music. Some songs would soon be re-recorded by Dylan and The Band and become instant classics, while other tracks would be successfully covered and released by artists such as The Byrds, Manfred Mann and Peter, Paul & Mary. But most importantly, the legacy of these recording would become tremendous, giving birth to the Americana and Alt-Country genre and influencing the output of bands in the following decades from The Beatles and The Rolling Stones in the late 60s all the way up to Wilco in the new millennium.
When Columbia officially released a wildly acclaimed compilation of these recording sessions named The Basement Tapes in 1975, some fans were also fast to criticize compiler Robbie Robertson for his omission of some of Dylan‘s best-known 1967 compositions and the inclusion of material by The Band that was not recorded in Woodstock and some significant overdubs on other original tracks. Almost thirty years later, the freshly released The Bootleg Series Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete (an official 6-CD box set containing 139 tracks that comprise all of Dylan‘s basement recordings – including, lo and behold!, 30 never-bootlegged tracks) and the companion 2-CD set The Basement Tapes Raw (containing highlights from the recordings) offer not only an improved sound quality to 1975’s messy and adulterated edition, but definitely provides a fully contextualized and chronological canon for what is arguably one of the most mesmerizing and pervasive recording sessions ever put to tape in the history of popular music.
João Pedro da Costa is a web studies scholar and a music fan.