Of all of Bob Dylan's exploits, if there's one that deserves a book-length examination, it's The Basement Tapes. As the author of the official album's liner notes, naturally the task fell to Greil Marcus, and in 1997, Invisible Republic was published—an in-depth, critical look at this mysterious collection of music and the mythology that lay behind it. With its title changed to The Old, Weird America for its 2001 reprint, the book has become a trusted manual on American folk music and Dylan's context within it. On May 5, 2011, an “Updated Edition” of Marcus' now-classic was released in light of Dylan's 70th birthday.
The Making of The Basement Tapes
Following his July 1966 motorcycle accident, Dylan disappeared from the public eye, immersing himself in family life in Woodstock with his new wife, Sara Lowndes. With his forthcoming world tour canceled and little news of any activity, it seemed that Dylan's career had screeched to a musical halt. But despite outward appearances, 1967 became his most prolific year as a songwriter.
To be closer to their musical co-conspirator, and on retainer, the members of Dylan's backing band, The Hawks (soon to become The Band) rented a house in nearby West Saugerties which they nicknamed Big Pink. Between spring and fall of that year, Dylan would drop by everyday for loose jam sessions in Big Pink's basement, which they'd converted into a crude but functional studio.
Using a professional reel-to-reel tape recorder with three microphones, throughout those months these musical companions laid down over 100 tracks, ranging from Johnny Cash and Hank Williams covers to ancient obscure folk ditties, along with dozens of original songs with lyrics that Dylan improvised on the spot. Known as “the basement tapes,” although some of the songs were distributed as demos, the bulk remained unpublished, soon becoming the quarry of bootleggers.
The Band would refine and re-cut a few of the songs for their 1968 debut album, Music From the Big Pink (compare prices), however it wasn't until 1975 that the public at large would taste the essential fruits of those sessions, which had by now grown to mythological proportions among diehard Dylan aficionados. Featuring the cream of the sessions, the 24-track double album The Basement Tapes was released as a collaborative effort by Bob Dylan and The Band, with 16 of the songs sung by Dylan and the rest sung by members of The Band.
As Greil Marcus wrote in the liner notes: “In spite of the bootlegs and the cover versions, The Basement Tapes have always been more of a rumor than anything else... More than a little crazy, at times flatly bizarre (take 'Million Dollar Bash,' 'Yazoo Street Scandal,' ' Don't Ya Tell Henry,' 'Lo And Behold!'), moving easily from confessional to the bawdy house, roaring with humor and good times, this music sounds to me at once like a testing and a discovery—of musical affinity, of nerve, of some very pointed themes; put up or shut up, obligation, escape, homecoming, owning up, the settling of accounts past due.”
The Old, Weird America
Although a lot of Dylan's history leading up to The Basement Tapes epoch has been overcooked, with due journalistic diligence, Marcus touches on Dylan's motorcycle accident, and how the sessions fell together. He details the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, with emphasis on how the experimental singer-songwriter created a fury by spiking the politically oriented folk milieu with rancorous rock and roll. With all of that out of the way, the author then churns out what amounts to a book-length essay dissecting the basement tapes and their legacy in American culture.
Swinging from the West Virginia coal strikes of the 1920s to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, from the birth of con man to the death of democracy, Marcus explores how Dylan's basement tapes are rooted in the social malaise of American history. The author digs into the marrow of American folk music, from Appalachia to Scotland to the Mississippi Delta, exploring the 1960s rediscovery of old masters—Dock Boggs, Mississippi John Hurt, Aunt Molly Jackson, et alia—and how they informed Dylan's own songbook, which becomes an extension of past generations in its own modern mythology.
Marcus extensively plumbs Harry Smith's obscure Anthology of American Folk Music, the six-disc album that has been lionized as the inspiration and musical Bible underlying the 1960s folk revival. As he writes, “Smith's Anthology is a backdrop to the basement tapes. More deeply, it is a version of them, and the basement tapes a shambling, twilight version of Smith's Anthology, which was itself anything but obvious.”
The Updated Edition
Since the publication of Dr. Marcus' book in 1997, the critics have oooh'd and ahhh'd. But despite the hype, of all of Marcus' books, this one probably meanders around the most. While it's a solid block of research with engaging analysis, the filaments binding the ideas are fleeting. Throughout the book Marcus gets carried away with the cryptic prose, which is super great fun to read, but really does nothing to move the premises forward.
Regardless, it's still a great book, and a tremendous resource for anyone researching either Bob Dylan or American folk music. But a word of warning: Make sure to have a copy of The Basement Tapes album and as many of the bootlegs from the sessions as poessible on hand. And a copy of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music would be advisable, too. Much of the book describes and compares the songs from both, and with no musical reference, readers may feel a little left out.
What makes the 2011 reissue an “Updated Edition” is a brand new (albeit better cover, plus a new three-page preface stapled into the front of the book in which Marcus talks about the origin of the book's title. In other words, nothing life-alteringly different from the last edition, but worth its weight in gold all the same.