Bob Dylan and the Holy Grail: Basement Tapes Officially Released After 47 Years

Benjamin Wright


In 1967 Bob Dylan had a brush with death in a frightful motorcycle accident—or so it is widely believed, though some question the story’s authenticity, believing that the accident was an excuse for Dylan to escape the scrutiny of the public eye.  But the genuineness of the story matters little so much as what happened after.


While recovering from the crash, Dylan spent some time in Woodstock, New York, joined soon after by other members of his band, the Hawks – Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson – the group who would soon become well-known simply as “The Band.” In those months of his absence from the public view Dylan and the Band recorded over 100 tracks in houses in and around Woodstock (mainly in the house affectionately known as “Big Pink”). The pieces they recorded then, practically on a daily basis, were a combination of traditional folk songs, covers of other modern artists (like Johnny Cash, Ian & Sylvia and John Lee Hooker) and even some new material.

Although removed from the gaze of critics and fans, it didn’t take long for the public to become aware of these new recordings that have since become the subject of much speculation and legend, with bits and pieces of these famed tapes released every now and again. But, every release always seemed incomplete or the sound quality was so poor that it was rendered nearly unlistenable, even if listeners could discern something remarkable under the scratchy surface.

When Columbia Records, Dylan’s longtime label, issued the first three volumes of “The Bootleg Series” in 1991 (a collection of recordings from live shows and hidden gems from the Dylan vault), many hoped that polished versions of the basement tape recordings soon would follow. But 22 years and seven “bootlegs” later, this expectation was still unfulfilled. And, meanwhile, it became ever more difficult to track down bootleg copies of the legendary basement tape recordings. Only now, 47 years after it was first recorded, 23 years since Columbia initiated the “Bootleg Series,” the public finally gets to hear these fabled recordings in their entirety (or so it is assumed), with refined sound quality. This 11th release in the bootleg catalogue not only contains what were long believed to be the entirety of the basement tape recordings, but also reveals 30 additional tracks which Rolling Stone claims are unknown even to the most ardent Dylanologists. This set is for many Dylan fans and music collectors the Holy Grail. And it has been a long, tiring quest to find it.     



Not long after the material was recorded it was pressed on vinyl and traded in the streets of New York under the title Great White Wonder. Many credit this unofficial release as the beginning of the bootleg industry in music. Shortly after the public discovery of these recordings Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner called on Dylan and his label to release the material, but to no avail. In 1975 – eight years after the material was recorded – a small sampling of the tracks was released by Columbia Records as a 2LP set simply called The Basement Tapes.  But this was like tasting a few dishes at a smorgasbord, and not even the choicest ones at that, though still incredibly fulfilling.  The most astonishing thing about the 2LP release was that the sampling included some tracks that were not part of the original bootleg record, leading many to believe that there was more basement tape material out there than what hit the streets in 1969. Some decades later, in the early 1990s, the material would be released on a 5-CD set marketed as The Genuine Basement Tapes. But this set enjoyed limited circulation and could soon be found only rarely and with a hefty price tag on sites like e-Bay. And even then it was rare to find the complete set. Seekers of this Holy Grail were more likely to find a piece here and there if any at all.

And so, like the great white whale, of Melville’s Moby Dick, those legendary recordings remained forever both ubiquitous and elusive. Like Ahab, many who have not been able to lay hands on the Great White Wonder know it is out there somewhere, hearing many grand stories about its existence. It was spotted in New York City very commonly in 1969 and then it disappeared beneath the choppy waters. It was found again in the 1990s, seen by many, but then disappeared. We saw its blowhole surface, but then it vanished. We found its tailfin mocking us before it evaded us once again.  And now we find that the whale is finally within our reach, but at a steep price. It won’t cost us our lives as it did Ahab and his men, but it will make a dent in our wallets. The Complete Basement Tape Recordings from Columbia are being put on the market right around $150! That’s more than many paid for the 5-disc bootleg. But is it worth it? Well, for a megalomaniac like Ahab was the hunt for the white whale worth risking his life? 

For those who already have copies of the famed bootlegs on vinyl or CD it might seem a bit ridiculous to buy another copy of the recordings. But according to Rolling Stone the new 6-CD set also offers us more than 30 new tracks and the sound quality is incomparable to anything that has come before it. And for those who have sought this leviathan for so long, who have scoured record store shelves in cities all across America and who have, without luck, been back and forth across the open waters of the World Wide Web, this is very much worth it, and unfortunately Columbia Records seems to be aware of this fact.



For Dylan fans this is a very good year, not just for this highly anticipated release, but for the vinyl re-issue of Dylan’s classic 1997 rebound album Time Out of Mind.  Due to limited vinyl pressings in the 1990s, until now that album could only be found in the collector’s bins and rare find sections of record stores for upwards of $200-$300.  Now it’s available on vinyl for a considerably lower price. It is now selling on Amazon for around $40, still a pretty sum. And this month also marks the release of Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes, an album produced by T-Bone Burnett and featuring artists like Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford (of Mumford & Sons), Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Rhiannon Giddens (Carolina Chocolate Drops) and Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes). That album consists of 20-tracks, lyrics written by a 26-year old Bob Dylan for the famed basement tape recordings.


Lyrically the album offers much, but the musical arrangements pale in comparison to those of Dylan and the Band, not unlike the 2011 release, The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams, which featured lyrics written by Hank Williams, put to music by many contemporary artists, including Dylan.  In addition, in May of this year Dylan fans were treated to a cover of Frank Sinatra’s 1945 song “Full Moon and Empty Arms,” which was posted on the septuagenarian rocker’s website. A Dylan rep confirmed that the song was to be included on an upcoming album to be released later this year (though the release date has since been pushed back to 2015). 

Some may be angry that it took nearly five decades to officially release the free and rootsy recordings of Dylan and the Band from 1967. But, if the music was meant to be for fun and never to be released, as claimed by Robbie Robertson (quoted in Greil Marcus’ 1997 book on the basement tapes, The Old, Weird America), their anger might be misplaced. Others may be rightfully frustrated that Columbia is selling the set at such a high cost (and these fans may be equally offended by the exorbitant price of the Time Out of Mind re-issue or of Dylan concert tickets, particularly when compared against ticket prices for his earlier shows when he was arguably a better performer than he is today).



For those who have sought this Holy Grail for so long, somewhere between $100 and $150 will likely be shelled out, though perhaps not without hesitation (and it should be noted that those who don’t mind can pick up a digital copy in the iTunes store for $69.99, half the price of a physical copy of the 6-disc collection, though without the accompanying photobook and packaging).


Others might wait a few months or even years to find The Complete Basement Tape Recordings used or at a much discounted price—they’ve waited years already, what’s a few months more? One thing is certain: even at $150, with more than 100 tracks, The Complete Basement Tapes will keep on giving a lot longer than that $100 concert ticket will. This was a phenomenal achievement in music and a historically and culturally significant record that moves forward by drawing upon the past, and that was put down at a time when the Beatles and Stones were moving in a completely different direction, experimenting with psychedelic music. 


For many who really have their eye on this gem they will not be able to wait any longer for the price to come down; they’ve already waited long enough. They’ll grumble about the cost, be bitter with Columbia (and possibly even with Dylan) for taking advantage of them, but they’ll feel a triumph in claiming the prize that they’ve so long sought after, even if it doesn’t have the same thrill as finding a bootleg record or CD and even if it doesn’t come cheap. 


Author Bio:

Benjamin Wright is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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