The Old, Weird America

The World of Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes

by Greil Marcus

5 May 2011


Deserter’s Songs

As over the years more and more of the basement performances appeared—as sold or stolen and then traded tapes, further bootleg lps and then cds, here and there an officially released track on a Dylan anthology— one could begin to hear something more than a number of interesting songs, or a moment in a particular career. Heard as something like a whole—as a story, despite or even because of its jumble of missing pieces, half-finished recordings, garbled chronologies of composition or performance— the basement tapes can begin to sound like a map; but if they are a map, what country, what lost mine, is it that they center and fix? They can begin to sound like an instinctive experiment, or a laboratory: a laboratory where, for a few months, certain bedrock strains of American cultural language were retrieved and reinvented. That was the notion that occurred to me in 1993, driving from California to Montana and back again listening to nothing but weather reports and a five-cd set of basement tapes bootlegs. Twenty-six years after they were made, years during which Bob Dylan had, it seemed, long since lost all maps to any crossroads beyond those within the ever-diminishing confines of his own career, the basement tapes were creeping up and out of their laboratory as if for the first time. Without knowing quite what I meant by “a laboratory,” I tried the notion out on Robbie Robertson, a friend since the early 1970s. “No,” he said. “A conspiracy. It was like the Watergate tapes. A lot of stuff, Bob would say, ‘We should destroy this.’ ”

“We went in with a sense of humor,” he said. “It was all a goof. We were playing with absolute freedom; we weren’t doing anything we thought anybody else would ever hear, as long as we lived. But what started in that basement, what came out of it—and the Band came out of it, anthems, people holding hands and rocking back and forth all over the world singing ‘I Shall Be Released,’ the distance that all of this went—came out of this little conspiracy, of us amusing ourselves. Killing time.”

Music made to kill time ended up dissolving it. As one listens, no date adheres to the basement tapes, made as the war in Vietnam, mass deaths in black riots in Newark and Detroit, the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the Summer of Love all insisted, in their different ways, on the year 1967 as Millennium or Apocalypse, or both. The year “America fell apart,” Newt Gingrich has said; “deserter’s songs,” a skeptic called the basement tapes in 1994, catching an echo of a few people holed up to wait out the end of the world. Yet the basement tapes could carry the date 1932 and it would be as convincing, as one listens, as 1967, if not more so— as would, say, the dates 1881, or 1954, 1992, 1993. In those last two years, Bob Dylan, then in his early fifties, suddenly recast what had come to seem an inexorably decaying public life with two albums of old blues and folk songs, Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong. Ranging from the sixteenth-century children’s ditty “Froggie Went A-Courtin’” to the 1890s murder report “Stack A Lee,” from the archaic Child ballad “Love Henry” to Blind Willie McTell’s 1931 “Broke Down Engine,” the songs were played on acoustic guitar and harmonica, with no other accompaniment; in Bob Dylan’s repertoire they preceded the material on his first album, issued thirty years before. Unlike other songs he had sung in nearly a quarter century, they removed him from the prison of his own career and returned him—or his voice, as a sort of mythical fact to the world at large.

“It is almost inconceivable that this is the man who once broke rock—as a form, as a mode of experience—in half,” critic Howard Hampton had written of one of Dylan’s albums of a few years before. “Now he’s the dutiful repairman. ‘Everything is broken,’ he sings, but promises the pieces can be put back together in his art as assuredly as they cannot be in the world. This is an inversion of what his work once meant, but it is also a continuation of the political world of the last twenty years. Society has structured itself around the suppression of the kinds of demands Dylan’s music once made, that it might make such speech unimaginable all over again.” But it seemed as if it were precisely an unimaginable form of speech—a once-common, now-unknown tongue— that Dylan had found, or was now proffering, in ancient songs. “Strange things are happening like never before,” went the first line of World Gone Wrong, from the title song, the Depression-era words from the Mississippi Sheiks sung in a weary, unsurprised voice; the tune, Dylan wrote in his liner notes, “goes against cultural policy.” Just as the basement tapes escaped the monolithic pop immediacy of their year— a year of such gravity, it could feel at the time, that it was like a vacuum, sucking everything into itself, suffering nothing to exist outside its own, temporal frame of reference— these old-timey albums were bereft of any nostalgia. If they were a look back they were a look that circled back, all the way around to where the singer and whoever might be listening now stood.

Photo by Thierry Arditti, Paris

Photo of Greil Marcus by © Thierry Arditti, Paris

More than anything Bob Dylan had done in the intervening years, these records were a continuation of the story the basement tapes told, or an unlocking of their laboratory. They “sound like they were made in a cardboard box,” Elvis Costello said in 1994 of the basement tapes, with Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong playing in his head. “I think he was trying to write songs that sound like he’d just found them under a stone. As if they sound like real folk songs— because if you go back into the folk tradition you will find songs as dark and deep as these.”

“He would pull these songs out of nowhere,” Robbie Robertson said. “We didn’t know if he wrote them or if he remembered them. When he sang them, you couldn’t tell.” That, in the basement tapes laboratory, is the alchemy, and in that alchemy is an undiscovered country, like the purloined letter hiding in plain sight.

Greil Marcus is the author of Lipstick Traces, Mystery Train, and most recently Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus, Writings 1968–2010 (PublicAffairs 2010). With Werner Sollors, he is the coeditor of A New Literary History of America (Harvard 2009). He lives in Berkeley, California.

© Greil Marcus

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