By Bryan Stengel
On Nov. 10, a box set of unreleased Bob Dylan lyrics will come to life in the album titled “Lost On the River: The New Basement Tapes.” About a year ago, musician and producer T-Bone Burnett received a message from the legendary folk-singer’s publisher, asking if he wanted to do something with Dylan’s songs, which were all hand-written in 1967 during his “Basement Tapes” hiatus. Dylan supported the distribution of his unreleased lyrics to Burnett.
With a uniquely rare project underway, Burnett asked no more questions, setting out to find a collaborative force of musicians to bring Dylan’s words to life. In March 2014, Elvis Costello, Rhiannon Giddens, Taylor Goldsmith, Jim James, and Marcus Mumford were invited to Capitol Studios, in the basement of the Capitol Records building in Hollywood, to arrange these playful lyrics. Burnett trusted that each of these artists had the talent and ability to illuminate the original spirit intended in these 47-year-old lyrics.
Dylan is one of the world’s most acclaimed and critically driven artists, and has touched the hearts of millions. In December 1960,
Dylan left his native state of Minnesota for New York, and started playing various gigs at local clubs in Greenwich Village. Within a few months, Dylan became increasingly active in New York’s flourishing folk scene. By the beginning of 1964, he cemented himself within the folk community. Despite the fame and success he achieved early in his career, Dylan never seemed to forget the roots of his musical inspiration.
One of Dylan’s earlier influences was Woody Guthrie, the American singer-songwriter known largely for the patriotic song,
“This Land is Your Land.” Dylan often paid homage to his hero at performances by telling the crowd he’d been traveling around the country following in Guthrie’s footsteps. Shortly after his arrival in New York, Dylan would frequently visit Guthrie at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital, where he was suffering from Huntington’s disease. As a tribute to the “Dust Bowl Troubadour,” Dylan released “Song to Woody” on his debut album in 1961. In this song, Dylan seems to have a final word with Guthrie, reminiscing about an unpredictable world, but a spirit left untangled—referring to Guthrie’s. The ghost voice of Guthrie continues to live on through the “Freewheelin’” mind of Dylan.
Burnett’s musicians embark on a similar quest to now speak the language of Dylan. “You try your best to make a strong foundation, and dress it up however you like,” said Sam Beam of Iron & Wine, in an interview with Sound Opinions, a Chicago-based radio talk show. After two weeks in the studio, Burnett’s team of artists did just that. They put together 40 recordings, the first 20 of which will be released on the new album this November. As Dylan once saw in Guthrie’s work, this project strives to embody the same concept. The same music may be “hittin’ some hard travellin’ along the way,” but that doesn’t mean it’ll go away either.