Making Music History: Bob Dylan's 'The Basement Tapes Complete'

Today Dylan fans can listen to ‘The Basement Tapes Complete,’ the legendary recordings that give us a glimpse into the most mysterious and private period in his career.
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Bob Dylan: With his Gibson Acoustic guitar around him, Dylan lets loose in this portrait. NYC, 1961.

Dylan with his Gibson acoustic guitar in New York City, 1961. (Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

In the rock-and-roll equivalent of the raising of the Titanic, today Columbia Records releases Bob Dylan’s The Basement Tapes Complete. The comprehensive six-CD box set contains 138 tracks from the legendary 1967 sessions that were until now known only through brief glimpses afforded by the partial releases and bootleg compilations that have occasionally floated to the surface over the last 40-plus years. The songs—which range from demo versions of hits recorded by others to early versions of material for Dylan’s John Wesley Harding to traditional numbers—will help illuminate the most mysterious and private period of Bob Dylan’s career, lending deeper insight into his development as an artist.

Shooting Star

In the early 1960s, there was no American musician more important than Bob Dylan. His narrative-driven ballads had thrust him to the forefront of the folk music revival, while the sociopolitical content of tracks such as “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They Are a-Changin’” and “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” made him a de facto spokesperson of the burgeoning counterculture movement. By the mid-60s, he had achieved significant commercial success as well, with several albums having reached the top 10 in both the U.S. and U.K. charts. He was a known favorite of British megastars such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, while American artists like the Byrds and Peter, Paul and Mary were finding chart success with their cover versions of his songs.

Evolution and Exile

But as Dylan grew increasingly weary of his role as a “protest singer,” and its accompanying musical constraints, he began to experiment with new musical forms and sounds, and in August 1965, Columbia Records released Highway 61 Revisited. The album was his first to feature an electric, rock-based backing band on nearly every track, rather than the acoustic instrumentation for which he was known. Yet despite the album’s overwhelming commercial success (it reached number 2 on the U.S. charts), Dylan’s performances to support the album and its follow-up Blonde on Blonde were at times greeted by boos and jeering from fans who felt he had “sold out” and was a traitor to the folk movement. He received similar backlash from some of the music media as well. Deeply resentful of these reactions and worn out from years of touring, Dylan retreated to his home in the mountains outside of Woodstock, New York, in 1966. On July 29 of that year, he crashed his motorcycle and was seriously injured.

Big Pink

Following the accident, Dylan withdrew even further from public life. He spent his time recuperating at home with his wife and newborn daughter, while editing footage for a documentary film of his last tour. But despite his self-imposed exile, Dylan remained connected to the music world, and in early 1967 he assembled the members of his touring band, the Hawks (later the Band), and they began to write and record in earnest. The sessions began at Dylan’s home, but soon moved to a makeshift studio set up in the basement of the Hawks’ nearby house, nicknamed “Big Pink” for its brightly colored exterior. The resulting recordings, made over the subsequent eight months, cover a range of styles and moods, reflecting the unconstrained atmosphere of the environment in which they were conceived, far from the limelight and free from the burdens of stardom. They also serve as a snapshot of an important American artist as he continues to reach out in new directions, ever seeking to evolve. 

By the time the sessions concluded in the fall of 1967, when Dylan returned to the studio to record his John Wesley Harding album, a selection of the songs had already been circulated within the music industry, and several would see the light of day through popular cover versions. Peter Paul and Mary’s rendition of “Too Much of Nothing” made the top 40 later that year, Manfred Mann’s recording of “The Mighty Quinn” (originally “Quinn the Eskimo”) reached number 10 on the Billboard charts in 1968 and the Byrds featured a version of “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” on their Sweetheart of the Rodeo album. But what about Bob Dylan himself? Where had he gone? When would he return? And what would he sound like when or if he did? Fans could only wonder.

Great White Wonder

In the summer of 1969, a plain white gatefold album released by a label called Trademark of Quality began to show up in record stores around the country. It contained 23 unreleased tracks from various Bob Dylan sessions, including seven from the “Big Pink” sessions. Although the sound quality of the recording, eventually known as Great White Wonder, was generally poor, the album was enthusiastically received by fans seeking to fill the void left by Dylan’s reclusion, and several different versions were soon widely circulated. It even prompted Jann Wenner, Rolling Stone’s then publisher, to print a cover story calling for a formal release of the sessions. However, the album had also come to the attention of Columbia Records, who sought to suppress the recordings. When their efforts met with little success, they sought to capitalize on Wonder’s underground popularity by releasing their own collection, 1975’s The Basement Tapes. The album included 16 tracks from the sessions, and featured heavy overdubbing and production supervised by Robbie Robertson, the Hawks’ guitar player. The album would eventually reach number 7 on the U.S. charts. But despite that success, this still only offered a glimpse of the whole, and contained altered versions of the originals.

Bob Dylan Basement Tapes Cover Art

"The Basement Tapes Complete" is a six-CD box set with 138 tracks from Dylan's legendary 1967 sessions outside of Woodstock, New York.

Into the Light

Compiled and released with Bob Dylan’s consent, and with the involvement of Hawks keyboard player Garth Hudson, The Basement Tapes Complete contains digitally restored versions of every known recording from the sessions, including some 30 tracks that have never been featured on any previous release, bootleg or otherwise. Taken as a whole, they offer the completest picture to date of this pivotal moment in the career of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame musician, and the history of American music.