When it was released in 1975, the official album was only the tip of the iceberg—a mere 24-song sampler of Bob Dylan's most prolific year as a songwriter. Whether it was simply a loose months-long jam session or—as some argue—an epic submersion into the primordial marrow of America's ancient folk tradition, The Basement Tapes will forever stand as one of the most obscure, yet important chapters of Dylan's career.
Dylan's Folk Scholarship
Although Dylan made a name for himself as a folksinger-songwriter in the early 1960s, his knowledge of folk music was superficial at best. Oft-described by his Greenwich Villager contemporaries as a “sponge” when it came to learning new songs, his sponge-manship was limited to technique.
Between 1961-66, Dylan's life was a whirlwind—a blur of activity that allowed no time to actually pause and absorb the rich roots, the lore, the purest American-ness of his chosen medium. He felt the archaic pulse—which is good enough to make brilliant music—but he'd only scratched the surface of its meaning. It wasn't until the The Basement Tapes era of 1967 that Dylan, at 26 years old, began to seriously and consciously plumb the mines of American folk and blues, tapping the true essence of the musical traditions he'd been stealing from and modifying.
Forever after, this Basement Tapes foundation would serve as Dylan's career anchor—a sanctuary of muses and inspiration that he would add to and tap into again and again for the duration, beginning with 1975's Rolling Thunder Revue, and later with the folk cover-albums Good As I Been to You and World Gone Wrong (1992-93), and into the new millennium with his Sirius/XM program, Theme Time Radio Hour.
In July 1966, after returning to his Woodstock refuge following a grueling world tour with his new electric backing band The Hawks, an exhausted Dylan had his legendary “nearly fatal” motorcycle accident. Seizing the opportunity to “get out of the rat race,” Dylan canceled all future plans—including a full fall tour—and went into seclusion for eight years. But despite outward appearances that Dylan's life had ground to a halt, as a songwriter, the following year became the most productive of his career.
To be closer to Dylan, The Hawks—consisting of Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, and Garth Hudson (and later in the sessions drummer Levon Helm)—had recently relocated to nearby West Saugerties into a house dubbed Big Pink. In the spring of 1967, while writing new material for his forthcoming album John Wesley Harding, Dylan began visiting the band for a few hours everyday for informal jams in the basement, where the musicians had set up a basic studio with three mikes and a seven-inch reel-to-reel tape recorder operated by Hawks organist Garth Hudson.
When exactly the Basement Tapes sessions began and ended has been one of those great rock mysteries. In the official album's liner notes, music writer Greil Marcus wrote “Between June and October,” however, he revised those dates in his 2001 book The Old Weird America to “early summer 1967... off and on through the rest of the year and into the next.” But regardless of that trivia, with no mission other than to get together and play, and no intention to ever release any of the songs recorded, the sessions became a time for pure creation that ranged anywhere from tomfoolery to absolute intensity—and moments pure sublimity.
From songs like Johnny Cash's “Big River” and Ian Tyson's “Four Strong Winds, to off-the-cuff performances like “Clothesline Saga” (a spin on Bobbie Gentry's then-hit “Ode to Billie Joe”), the bulk of the sessions were spent either improvising or doing covers of folk ballads and country standards. Meanwhile, Dylan seized the opportunity to teach the Hawks the songs he'd cut his teeth on back in the early Village days, generating a new appreciation for traditional American music in these hardcore Canadian rockers.
All told, in the six or seven months that encompassed the sessions, the musicians produced more than 100 songs ranging from half-minute fragments, to zany throwaways, to fully realized originals. Other songs included Curtis Mayfield's “People Get Ready,” John Lee Hooker's “I'm in the Mood,” traditional songs like “Going Down the Road” and “Coming Round the Mountain,” and even “Flight of the Bumble Bee.”
Despite the no-expectations atmosphere of the sessions, a 14-song demo called “The Basement Tape” was released with some of the original performances, including “The Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo)” (which became a #10 hit first for Manfred Mann in 1968), “Too Much of Nothing,” first recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary in 1967, and “You Ain't Goin' Nowhere,” recorded by the Byrds.
The Official Album
In 1968, renamed “The Band,” the Hawks would reach rapid fame as America's foremost “country rock” band, and their debut album, Music from Big Pink, would prominently feature some of the cream of the Basement Tapes sessions, including, "This Wheel's on Fire" (purchase/download) and "Tears of Rage" (purchase/download).
Meanwhile, it didn't take long for the demo—meant to stay behind industry doors—to trickle into the public domain and become Dylan's most heavily bootlegged recordings of all time. But despite that saturation, with the world still high on the 1974 comeback album Blood on the Tracks, when Columbia released the official album The Basement Tapes in 1975, it quickly blazed up the charts into the top ten.
Featuring 24 tracks from the sessions, as Greil Marcus wrote in the liner notes, “As Dylan and The Band trade vocals across these discs, as they trade nuances and phrases within the songs, you can feel the warmth and the comradeship that must have been liberating for all six men... the open spirit of the songs is as straightforward as their unmatched vitality and spunk.”
Although more of unreleased tracks from the sessions have made it onto official releases over the years, the most recent unearthing from the Basement Tapes vaults was the song “I'm Not There,” which also which Todd Haynes used in the title of his 2007 film by the same name. Recorded in one take, and never performed again, until now the song was the most obscure track from the sessions.