Another entry in my continuing adventures with Book Riot’s 2016 Read Harder Challenge.
I am far from a Dylan scholar. I’ll admit that up front. I certainly know his songs; I can get why people flipped when he went electric and how the genius of Blonde on Blonde smoothed things over. But with his slightly controversial Nobel Prize for Literature honor, my interest in his work has been renewed. That’s why The Old, Weird America by Greil Marcus works out great to help check off the task of “Read a biography (not a memoir or autobiography).”
This book digs in deep with the infamous Basement Tapes. I first learned about them two years ago, when Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, Jim James and a host of other talented musicians came together as The New Basement Tapes to record Lost on the River. I knew that the lyrics were a collection of mostly unreleased songs. Turns out there is far more to it.
For the uninitiated, the story goes roughly like this: after Dylan was injured in a motorcycle accident in 1966, he hid away for a while in his home in Woodstock, NY. While recuperating, he and some friends (you may know them as The Band) began messing around with some new material. A demo recording with 14 of those songs began to circulate among musicians, leading at least four of the tracks being released as covers by other bands. By 1969, bootleg copies of the so-called Basement Tapes had reached fans. An official recording was released in 1975 and since then, more than 100 songs have been bootlegged from the Basement Tape recordings. As a Jeff Buckley fangirl who has spent plenty of time hunting for his recordings, I can appreciate this level of dedication.
This book explores the very weird legacy of these recordings. In one of the early chapters, Marcus says that the songs “can begin to sound like an instinctive experiment, or a laboratory: a laboratory where, for a few months, certain bedrock strains of American cultural language were retrieved and reinvented.” It’s kind of a heavy mantle to carry, but if anyone can handle it, Dylan can. After all, when asked about his nomination for the Nobel Prize, Sara Danius (Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, the people responsible for selecting the laureate) said that “He can be read and should be read, and is a great poet in the English tradition.”
I happen to agree with Danius. I think Dylan’s lyrics most certainly hold up to the kind of critical literary analysis English major-types have long applied to poetry. His work, especially from the 1960s, can certainly be examined as an oral history of a very tumultuous era. He’s a bold choice but most certainly a good one for this honor.