What Came Out of the Basement: ‘The Old Weird America’

In 1967, America seemed done, finished. The assassination of a young president in 1963 had closed the New Frontier and unleashed ill-spirits into the land. In 1968, Senator Kennedy would die in a kitchen, haunted by his brother’s restless young ghost. Dr. Martin Luther King died in Memphis, the city of mystery trains and records that shone like the Sun. The city at the tip of the Delta where so much of America had been born over the last few decades suddenly became a city of the dead, a place where someone shot a king just to watch him die.

Cities would burn. College campus would explode. America’s unsteady leaders would expand the war in the Southeast Asia. Then lie about it and suppress civil liberties to hide the lies. Dylan had warned that a hard rain was a-gonna fall and nobody listened, even the folkies and the lefties who thought they had been the first to listen and the only ones to understand.

Dylan himself had changed. Greil Marcus’s classic The Old Weird America opens by detailing how Zimmy had torn the folk world apart in the summer of 1965, playing a short angry set with an electrified guitar, rejecting the expectation that he would be the voice of a generation, a voice of protest songs and political statements. Folk overlords Pete Seeger and Theodore Bikel had been left gasping in astonishment and disappointment.

Just as the set began, Marcus describes Dylan turning his back on the crowd, telling his band, “Let’s go.” That “let’s go” abandons the simplicities of the folk revival. It maybe even ushered in the explosion, marked the beginning of the true ’60s. It’s the cry of a paratrooper jumping behind enemy lines, the beginning of a cavalry charge in the age of horse or maybe just someone jumping off a fucking cliff. They left Newport on the English tour where his acoustic folk sets were meet with cheers and his electrified second half of the show provoked a dangerous, seething rage complete with cries of “Traitor!” and “Sellout!” and “Judas!”

Then, in 1966, Dylan had a motorcycle accident that led to rumors he was dead, maimed and, whatever he was, finished. He was, of course, none of these things. But he was giving birth to the a new phase in his career. The chrysalis became the basement of a house in western New York that became known as “Big Pink.”

This place became, Greil writes, a place to play music for “people with no account to settle.” It’s hard not to agree. Dylan had already settled a lot of accounts by 1966, not only with the world of folk but also with his new world of rock. Watch some of his press conferences from 1965, the moment of the apocalypse, and you’ll see him scowl, smirk, and say goodbye to every expectation that had ever been loaded on him, refusing all the labels and laughing in the face of the earnest cool of rock writers and the just plain earnestness of the press.

But Marcus should have added that he and his merry pranksters are still trying to settle their accounts with the past in the so-called Basement Tapes. Like sorcerers they called up the shades Frank Hutchison mingling with Dock Boggs who passed a reefer on to Clarence Ashley, the sound of America’s ancient hills pulling the madness of the sixties into their vortex. But this is no retreat into the antiquarian past. That would be nothing new,that was not “what’s happening” as Dylan liked to say in those days, and the folkies themselves had already tried it. Marcus finds something else in songs like “Tears of Rage” and “Lo and Behold” and “You ain’t going nowhere” songs that feel old but something more than just old. He writes that they provide “a sense that the past is rushing forward, about to sweep all the conceits of the present away for good.”

Marcus first published this work in 1997 under the title of The Invisible Republic. In this revised reprint, Marcus gives his work the title that it deserved, a title that names the strange mostly unexplored land that hides beneath the official national narratives, the hotdogs and firecrackers patriotism, George Washington not being able to tell a lie and George W. Bush giving a rousing speech on an aircraft carrier in a goddamn flight suit. In Marcus’ reading of America these things hide, usually on purpose, the old weird America.

“The old weird America” is out on a road that goes on forever and the party never ends, a macabre party of folk singing about death, murder and God, a place Gram Parson’s visited when he was “out with the truckers and the kickers and the cowboy angels.” Dylan and his band accessed this world in the basement tapes. Marcus’ work examines them with his eye for connections and a willingness to follow a song down to its primeval roots, to find the shades of Jonathan Edwards and the Puritans mixing with Abraham Lincoln and tales of shootings, stabbings and drownings for love in the mountains two hundred years old.

The jewel of this now classic work is his chapter on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music . Smith is one of the most extraordinary hidden figures of midcentury America, music lover, spiritual wanderer, con man, occultist who claimed to be the bastard son of Aleister Crowley, a magician of the bohemian Village even before it became bohemian. The Anthology of American Folk Music collected eighty-four songs and ranged from Mississippi John Hurt to Dock Boggs. Child ballads of murder and death mingle with blues numbers. The titanic sinks and Memphis street singer Furry Lewis chants up Casey Jones. Marcus calls it “a chronology of British fable and American happenstance.”

And why does Marcus so much time and write so beautifully of this collection? Well, for one thing, would be no folk revival without Smith’s work and also maybe no Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, more recently, Jack White. Other than Alan Lomax, Smith is the channel, the mystical conduit that made something real out of rock and roll.

But for Marcus, the anthology meant something even more particular for The Basement Tapes. They are a kind of mirror for them, a point of ingress into that secret America that’s less a secret than it is a scandal, the mystery beneath the shiny sheen, the railroad songs, cowboy tunes, and chain gang work songs that are the real symbols of America, are the real America. Like the Anthology, the circus-like atmosphere of what happened in Big-Pink’s basement opened the door to what Marcus calls “ the mystical body of the republic…a declaration of a weird but clearly recognizable America.”

Then it was all over and the band went on to become the legendary The Band. Dylan recorded his next album, John Wesley Harding, yet another musical departure that Marcus describes perfectly as a “puritan western” and “the first doomed sound of 1968.”

The new revised edition of the book includes an extraordinary discography that is much more than an appendix. Its as if Marcus included all of his notes on the Basement Tapes, expositions of songs, influences and general impressions. We also get a complete discussion of the recording of those restless inhabitants of the old weird America like Boggs, Ashley and others. This new edition also contains a seldom seen photograph on the cover, Dylan in a coonskin cap and shades, the pathfinder through the old, weird America.

Marcus’s work is essential for Dylan fans and not a bad book for those seeking to understand American history. If you’ve read Marcus’ Lipstick Traces, you know that he’s one of the best historians out there (it no surprise, really, that he is a friend and collaborator of Princeton’s acclaimed American historian Sean Wilentz). Its likely you find The Old Weird America one of the more accessible of his works, an exploration of the B-side of the bootlegged version of American history that maybe tells the real story that never made it into the textbooks.

RATING 10 / 10