Getting lost on Bob Dylan’s river: ‘We felt if we dug it then he would, too’

When T Bone Burnett was asked to set a stash of lost Dylan lyrics to music, he put Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford and Rhiannon Giddens, among others, in a room together. They jammed ‘the heart and soul out of each other’ to come up with ‘Lost on the River’

 

There is a well-known stopgap in the musical history of Bob Dylan, and it starts after Blonde on Blonde, from 1966. That album rollicked along via a collection of tunes that provided rock music with its first double album and, surely, its first masterpiece. Eighteen months later, in December 1967, Dylan released John Wesley Harding, an album that bypassed rock music, and directly referenced his early acoustic work. But what, his fans wanted to know, accounted for such a lengthy time away from the public eye? Had a motorcycle accident accounted for his hiding away in Woodstock in upstate New York? And what had he been doing there?

We know now, of course, that for some months in 1967 Dylan and some Canadian musician friends, who would soon become known as The Band, were loosely jamming together on a broad collection of songs. These would be known, unofficially, as the Great White Bootleg and, officially, as The Basement Tapes. We also know that fewer than 20 songs from these free and easy sessions were released by Dylan’s record label in 1975, and that only last week, the entire collection of recorded songs from these sessions was released as The Basement Tapes Complete, as part of the record-label-sanctioned Bootleg Series. What wasn’t known until last year, however, was that Dylan wrote far more lyrics than he could use for songs, so he hid the extras away in a box.

Cue a phone call last October from Dylan’s publisher to T Bone Burnett, the producer, musician and friend of Dylan. The publisher had a question: would Burnett be interested in doing something with these forgotten lyrics? Burnett didn’t take long to answer.

“That’s about as simple as it is,” a suitably laid-back Burnett says from his home in Nashville. “Dylan just found a box, about three inches thick, of handwritten lyrics from 1967, when he was laid up writing all those Basement Tapes songs. He didn’t want to go back to them himself; he seemed to have no interest. That said, he didn’t want to throw them away, either.”

Aside from Dylan and, latterly, his publisher, no one knew that these hundreds of lyrics – many finished songs, some lyric sketches – existed. Burnett says in his understated way that “it was just one of those things”. His initial feeling on hearing of their discovery was one of amazement – it was an incredible opportunity, he says, to revisit that period of time with 50 years of hindsight.

No stipulations

And so Dylan let Burnett get on with it – with no stipulations or conditions, and with total trust. “That’s the way Bob operates and, for that matter, the way I do, too. I try to work with the best musicians in the world, and I never tell them what to do. If you get the good people, then you let them do what it is they do. That’s definitely Bob’s philosophy.”

Burnett drafted in musicians that he terms “band leaders”, people, he says, who had “real collaborative instincts, who could work together, and jam the heart and soul out of each other”. Cue the arrival of Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, Rhiannon Giddens of Carolina Chocolate Drops, and Jim James of My Morning Jacket.

Burnett then came up with the project’s modus operandi. “Once we had the musicians, all that was left was to throw our full support and love behind them. It wasn’t a matter of directing them or helping them towards any end result; it was just letting them get on with it, and giving them the confidence and freedom to not feel self-conscious or hamstrung by the legend of Bob Dylan – or the legend of the Basement Tapes, for that matter.

“I also wanted to go with the spirit and ethos of the original Basement Tapes, in that none of it was really thought out. It was very much of the moment, improvised. It was clear to me early on that to duplicate the music would be folly. But to record the new songs in the same spirit seemed correct. So we started from there – more the method of working without pressure, without a lot of expectations. Working free, I guess you could say.”

Free, fun and loose, with a side order of respect and, Burnett admits, an element of serving the writer of the lyrics. “Oh, absolutely – all of the musicians have a tremendous amount of gratitude and respect for Bob, so certainly we wanted to do something that reflected well on him. We definitely didn’t want to embarrass him; rather, we would do something that he would like, and of course something that we would dig, also. We felt if we dug it then he would, too.”

Added pressure

Was there a level of responsibility to Dylan in the requirement to do the best job possible? “Once he had offered them, that was enough. I didn’t feel any more responsibility to him than I do to every other member of the audience. In other words, there wasn’t any added pressure to deliver just because the instigator was Dylan.”

And yet Dylan, despite his apparent lack of zeal in wanting to place music around his own words, had asked to hear the results. Did he like what he heard? Burnett’s gentlemanly demeanour shines through.

“I can’t speak for him, obviously. I can tell you, however, that if he hadn’t liked what he heard then it wouldn’t be coming out.”

Was there a small part within Burnett – a friend as much as a fan – that wished Dylan himself had participated? This, he says, would be like looking a gift horse in the mouth.

“He was generous enough to give us the lyrics, and he obviously didn’t want to go back to them himself, so, looking at it that way, I wouldn’t have expected him to come in and work on it with us.”

Irrespective of this, what does he make of a songwriter who forgets, or just puts aside, so many lyrics that had been written decades ago?

“I think every songwriter does that. I have books of ideas that I’ve never done anything with, so it isn’t unfamiliar territory. Laying aside so many lyrics seemed like a normal, business-as-usual matter. I just wish someone would do it for me someday. I’ve got hundreds of songs I’ve started and not finished, and it isn’t that they’re not good, it’s just that inspiration happens and then somebody calls on the phone. It’s nothing personal, Irish Times, but life can be messy like that.”

No offence taken, but we have one further question before we allow inspiration to reconnect: there’s a sense of unfinished business here, isn’t there? Surely enough lyrics remain for the basis of a follow-up album.

There are, Burnett says, up to “30 reasonably complete sets of lyrics in that box if we wanted to dig back into it at any time. The ones we focused on were the most finished, but I’m enough of a completist to want to go back in and finish what we started. I can’t say for sure for the musicians, but I would certainly be happy to go back into the studio.”

‘LOST ON THE RIVER’: THE DYLAN FAN’S VERDICT

‘Lost on the River’ doesn’t play much like a Bob Dylan album to me. It plays like a soundtrack to a Dylan album, the way ‘I’m Not Here’, the film by Todd Haynes, played like that visually.

Lyrically, these are definitely Dylan songs, coming from a young man who was lost on the river of rural blues and folk rhythms, somewhere up in Woodstock. Most of the songs vibrate with the same echoes of ‘The Basement Tapes’, but others go off somewhere else, in a range of voices and tempos, mostly roving and slightly mysterious and always good fun.

Jim James sets the tempo on ‘Down on the Bottom’. He has the voice and phrasing to draw any listener in, and ‘Lost on the River’ doesn’t give up after that. ‘Spanish Mary’, like one of those early Dylan songs that gave you goosebumps, sung here by Rhiannon Giddens, is beautiful, the sort of song Dylan could drop into his live set.

Elvis Costello plays his polished parts most distinctly on ‘Liberty Street’, although there are more subtle and haunting songs, such as ‘When I Get My Hands on You’, layered with a sweet range of instruments that only T Bone Burnett could accumulate.

There are more songs where ‘Lost on the River’ came from. They shall be released, and they shall be listened to. – Ian O’Riordan

Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes is on Island Records/Harvest Records

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