Has anyone watched Lost Songs: The Basement Tapes Continued? I’ve been listening to the songs and watching clips, but finally sat down to watch the full documentary last night. In the summer of 1967 Bob Dylan disappears to a pink house in West Saugerties, New York to recover from a motorcycle accident, escape the grind of touring, and just kick around. It ends up being the most prolific songwriting time of his life. Sometimes Dylan writes longhand, sometimes on a typewriter. One of his buddies, a fellow musician, says, he’d write these letters everyday and never send them. I’ve never seen someone write so many letters to himself.
Dylan and his crew record over a hundred songs in the basement of Big Pink. Some rise to the surface as huge hits, “I Shall Be Released,” “The Mighty Quinn,” “You Ain’t Going Nowhere.” But most of the songs are never heard again. There’s a bootleg called Great White Wonder that appears in ’69, and then Capitol Records releases 16 songs in ’75 called The Basement Tapes album.
Almost fifty years later, T Bone Burnett gets a message from Dylan’s publisher that a box of lyrics has been found, all handwritten. Dylan okays their release, and T Bone brings together Rhiannon Giddens, Elvis Costello, Taylor Goldsmith, Jim James, and Marcus Mumford to develop the lyrics into songs and record an album in two short weeks. The documentary follows their creative process, how they coax the songs into being. Costello comes in as Costello. Goldsmith and James do a lot of work ahead of time, have some songs figured out.
Mumford and Giddens struggle the most. Mumford admits to relying on the collaborative dynamic, the magic that happens when you’re all in a room riffing on a tune. Eventually he goes off alone to work on a song so he can bring something whole to the table. He says he’s not used to writing like this, cutting an album in just two weeks. Normally it takes him six months to write a single song. He talks about feeling insecure – though more secure than he would’ve felt two years ago – and questions whether insecurity is essential to making art. We see the artist mid process, hitting those notes that aren’t yet the right ones, trying to find his way there. When they all get back into the studio – pow – Mumford blows the lid off with “Kansas City”. I can’t stop listening to that song. And I love you dear / but just how long / can I keep singing the same old song?
Rhiannon Giddens. Let’s just pause here and give her a nod for being the only woman in the studio, sticking to her guns and letting her voice rise and resound above those noisy male egos. She’s trying to draw out “Lost On The River”, but it’s eluding her. The guys try to collaborate, adding big rhythm, louder bass. She cuts them off again and again. It’s not working. They’re not hearing what she’s after. Eventually they call it quits. You watch her go through the evolution of persistence and doubt and frustration. She comes close to just letting the song go. But Mumford stays with her. He can hear what she’s trying to do. He encourages her. Let’s keep working this out. And Giddens says, it makes such a difference when someone believes in you. So they keep after it and they keep after it, and Giddens coaxes that song into being. Her version. The one she could hear rising up inside her.
This is how art gets made. Sometimes it arrives fast, all coming together with the wave of an orchestral magic wand. But most times you’re trudging through, groping around with your arms outstretched. You can hear it, you know it’s there, but you have to solve the mystery of bringing it into being. You know it’s possible. You’ve done this before. You’ve been doing it for years. But still. You get frustrated, wonder if what you’re hearing is real, wonder if it’s even worth it. And then a voice reaches you, keep going, sweet pea, it is so worth it. Another artist, fellow conjurer, urges you on. And it makes all the difference. A massive thanks to the writer Cynthia Newberry Martin for hearing my music, inspiring me with your writing, encouraging me on this leg of the journey, and for the mention on Catching Days this week. Thank you to the writer Rachel Federman at Last American Childhood for keeping me in conversation with thoughtful comments and the beautiful writing on your blog. And thank you to a dear offline writer and other friends who read along and send me messages. I’d thought a lot about doing this project in a notebook, working quietly in a vacuum. It’s scary to be in process out loud, letting people hear all those off-key notes as you struggle to find the song.
That’s how the writing comes through for me, like a song, a galloping rhythm, a halting tone. Story comes in like a wisp, a thread to an idea. There is never a story that shows up whole or characters who knock at my door. It arrives as sound, a song I have to figure out how to sing. I listen for it. The galloping. And then I have to catch it, coax it. These thoughts on process might be the most cohesive writing I accomplished on Saturday, that quiet day I had all to myself. I’d imagined immensities, but it didn’t quite go that way. When my family arrived home at 3:30 in the afternoon, I didn’t have a twenty page manuscript to wave at them. But the sun was shining and it almost felt like spring. We headed out for a walk to the beach. Along the way, Isabella found a cattail in the grass. She raised it up, an orchestral magic wand, as if in tribute to the day, as if she could hear music.