A trove of two dozen unfinished Bob Dylan songs written circa 1967 during his “Basement Tapes” period are being completed by an ad-hoc band assembled by producer T-Bone Burnett, including Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, Carolina Chocolate Drops singer Rhiannon Giddens and Dawes lead guitarist and songwriter Taylor Goldsmith. The resulting project will be released as an album and a Showtime special later this year.
“These are not B-level Dylan lyrics,” Burnett, 66, said Monday during a break in filming and recording sessions in Hollywood for “Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes.” They’re lyrics he just never got round to finishing.”
During the first week of recording, Burnett said that they’d laid down nearly 48 tracks and that they expected to have more than 50 to draw from by the time recording wraps up this week. Among them are the title track, “Florida Key,” “Card Shark” and “Hi-De-Ho.”
On Monday, Costello was at the mixing board during vocal overdubs of the song “Florida Key.” James, Giddens, Goldsmith and Mumford huddled around a single microphone, harmonizing atop the jaunty retro jazz-pop treatment that Costello composed for lyrics expressing a man’s quixotic pursuit of an elusive lover.
“Florida Key” is one of the more lighthearted songs. “Lost on the River” by contrast, paints a picture of a man adrift, searching for his bearings – and finding them.
I got lost on the river, but I got found
I got lost on the river, but I didn’t drown
I got lost on the river, but I didn’t go down
I got lost on the river, but I got found
A few minutes later, when Costello asked Giddens to put a harmony on one line, she told the engineer during playback, “You can bring his voice up some more.” Costello turned, smiled and said “Nobody’s ever complained about my voice not being loud enough.”
Burnett and Costello spoke of trying to honor the spirit of the original recordings that came to be known as “The Basement Tapes” because they were recorded by Dylan and the Band while they were holed up in a large house in upstate New York known as Big Pink.
The resulting songs were never intended for release, but they became the first widely circulated bootleg recordings by a major rock artist and ultimately were release in official form by Dylan’s label, Columbia Records, in 1975.
Among the songs written during that time were some of the most highly regarded from both Dylan and the Band, including “I Shall Be Released”, “Tears of Rage” and “Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood).”
They reportedly wrote and recorded at least 30 new songs, but Dylan had written many more sets of lyrics that he never set to music. Noted Costello “There’s a song called ‘Matthew Met Mary’ and a kind of refrain [is] ‘A thousand doors couldn't hold me back from you.’ If you wrote that line, would you leave it in a drawer for 47 years?”
“The New Basement Tapes” project aims to honor the freewheeling spirit of the original sessions, even though, Costello pointed out from the control room of Capitol Records Studio A, “This is the exact opposite of “The Basement Tapes”: We’re in the best recording studio in the world and we’re not in a basement.”
Another difference between the old and new “Basement Tapes” is that this project is also being documented by filmmaker Sam Jones for Showtime’s Sho:Close Up documentary “Lost Songs: The Basement Tapes Continued.” Jones, director of “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” a 2002 documentary about the band Wilco, noted that no photographs apparently were taken during the original Big Pink sessions, although some film footage is said to exist.
One intriguing facet of the current project is the sense of collaboration among the participants. Each has come up with his or her own music for many of the lyrics, resulting in multiple versions of the same songs and allowing a perspective on the ways different artists respond to Dylan’s lyrics.
Each artist has taken the lead during tracking sessions of their songs, and the others provide whatever vocal and instrumental support is required, with Burnett overseeing final production of all tracks.
It hasn’t been decided how many of the tracks ultimately will be released. Dylan’s involvement in the project, beyond providing the lyrics, appears to be limited to giving it his blessing and possibly sitting for a new interview to be part of the documentary.
A spokesman for Dylan said he’s offered no explanation of why he decided to offer the unfinished songs to Burnett to complete. It’s hard not to speculate that the decision is at least partially driven by Dylan’s experience helping to bring lyrics left unfinished by Hank Williams to life by having a variety of rock, pop and country artists set them to music and record them for the 2011 album “The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams.”