To Catch Up With Bob Dylan, T Bone Burnett Assembles A Dream Team

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To create Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes, T Bone Burnett (third from left) assembled the talents of Elvis Costello, Jim James, Jay Bellerose, Rhiannon Giddens, Marcus Mumford and Taylor Goldsmith. (Courtesy of the artist)
To create Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes, T Bone Burnett (third from left) assembled the talents of Elvis Costello, Jim James, Jay Bellerose, Rhiannon Giddens, Marcus Mumford and Taylor Goldsmith. (Courtesy of the artist)

There's a well-known musical gap in the story of Bob Dylan. It comes after his 1966 album Blonde On Blonde, a work filled with raucous, rocking, stream-of-conscious imagery. About 18 months later, Dylan returned to his earlier style of acoustic music on John Wesley Harding. What accounted for that gap, and what transpired during it, are still a subject of speculation among those who care about such things. In any case, around the time of a motorcyle accident, Dylan retreated from public view.

Out of that time came a collection of songs referred to as The Basement Tapes. Those songs would be released in 1975 — but the story of the gap goes deeper.

Last fall, producer and musician T Bone Burnett received a phone call from Bob Dylan's publisher. It had uncovered a box of lyrics from 1967, songs that had Dylan had never put to music, and wanted to know whether Burnett was interested in doing something with them.

"There was such a depth to the material. It was nothing I wanted to attempt myself," Burnett says in a conversation with NPR's Robert Siegel. "At the time, Bob was collaborating with one of the most extraordinary groups of musicians in history, the group that came to be known as The Band. I thought, in keeping with that spirit of collaboration that Bob was engendering at that time, let's do the same thing. Let's find a group of bandleaders who know how to collaborate, and could come in and conjure something up out of these lyrics."

That star-studded group Burnett assembled includes Elvis Costello, contemporary folk notables Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons and Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, vocalist Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and My Morning Jacket's Jim James. The group's debut album together is titled Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes.

Taylor Goldsmith, Marcus Mumford and Elvis Costello in the studio.
Taylor Goldsmith, Marcus Mumford and Elvis Costello in the studio.

Burnett says the task of putting music to Dylan's words was daunting, and yet compelling: Here was a chance to get into the songwriter's mind at a time when he was arguably too productive.

"It's irresistible to get to collaborate with a 27-year-old Bob Dylan," Burnett says. "We felt maybe we could catch up with him at this point."

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And now some Bob Dylan songs that you'd never heard before - lyrics by Dylan, music by several artists added almost 50 years later, in this case by Elvis Costello.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOST ON THE RIVER")

ELVIS COSTELLO: (Singing) I got lost on the river, but I didn't go down. I got lost on the river, but I got found.

SIEGEL: That song is "Lost On The River," the title track of a new album of songs by Dylan and others. And I'll let our guest, musician and producer T Bone Burnett, pick up the story of how this album came about. Welcome to the program.

T BONE BURNETT: Thank you, happy to be here. Well, last fall, I got a call from Bob Dylan's publisher saying that they had uncovered a box of lyrics from 1967. And the publisher said, do you want to do something with them? So I started thinking about it, the idea of collaborating with Bob Dylan with 47 years of hindsight.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIBERTY STREET")

GOLDSMITH: (Singing) He came from the old religion but possessed no magic skill.

SIEGEL: This is "Liberty Street."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIBERTY STREET")

GOLDSMITH: (Singing) Descending from machinery, he left nothing in his will.

SIEGEL: Music by Taylor Goldsmith.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIBERTY STREET")

GOLDSMITH: (Singing) The crops are failin', the women wailin'. It's in the paper at your feet. Six months in Kansas City down on Liberty Street.

SIEGEL: There's another song about Kansas City and one about St. Louis. Why do you think this was on Bob Dylan's mind at that time?

BURNETT: He might have been working for the Chamber of Commerce of Kansas City at the time. (Laughing) I'm not quite sure.

SIEGEL: So what you have is this huge amount of lyrics by Dylan -not even indications of chord progressions or anything like that.

BURNETT: That's right. It was just all mostly handwritten with drawings on the side and things crossed out.

SIEGEL: And you had the idea of bringing in a number of songwriters and singers to put music to Dylan's 47-year-old words.

BURNETT: You know, there was such a depth of the material. It's nothing I wanted to attempt myself. And I thought the timebomb was collaborating with, you know, one of the most extraordinary groups of musicians in history, the group that came to be known as The Band. I thought, you know, in keeping with that spirit of collaboration that Bob was engendering at that time, let's do the same thing. Let's find a group of bandleaders who know how to collaborate and could come in and conjure something up out of these lyrics.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN I GET MY HANDS ON YOU")

MARCUS MUMFORD: (Singing) I listen to you time and time again while you tell me just what's right. And you tell me a thousand things a day then sleep somewhere else at night. I'm going back to Kansas City. And I love you dear, but just how long can I keep singing the same old song? And I love you dear, but just how long can I keep singing the same old song? I'm going back to Kansas City.

SIEGEL: Words by Dylan, music by Marcus Mumford and Taylor Goldsmith.

BURNETT: That's an interesting song, actually. You know, that's a song by Bob. He's saying I love you dear, but just how long can I keep singing the same old song? And I thought this was probably a very personal song of Bob's that he was writing to the audience that's saying here, I came into your house, and I played these songs, and you want me to keep playing them. But I'm not going to do it. I'm going back to the blues. I'm going to Kansas City. I think Kansas City is such a seat of the blues, really.

SIEGEL: Here's a track. This is "Nothing To It" - Bob Dylan - is what Jim James made with the Dylan lyric and some weird, dark humor here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOTHING TO IT")

JIM JAMES: (Singing) Well, I knew I was young enough. And I knew there was nothing to it 'cause I'd already seen it done enough. And I knew there was nothing to it. There was no organization I wanted to join. So I stayed by myself and took out a coin. There I sat with my eyes in my hand, just contemplating killing a man for greed was one thing I just couldn't stand. If I was you I'd put back what I took. A guilty man...

SIEGEL: T Bone Burnett, I've got to say, I'm no Dylan-ologist, but that one sounds as far away from an actual Dylan song as I can imagine.

BURNETT: Yeah, the way Jim approached, he - it's like a Curtis Mayfield riff, you know, going from Kansas City up the river to Chicago. But there again, you know, I think that's Bob saying I'd seen Eddie Cochran. I'd seen Buddy Holly. I'd seen Elvis Presley. I knew there was nothing to it.

SIEGEL: Did you ever have doubts about this and say these are the lyrics that Dylan never got around to writing any music to when he did write music right after that? There was some great stuff about to come out. This is the stuff he didn't put music to. Maybe let it lie, you know?

BURNETT: Except it was good. That was the thing. And he wanted to do it. That was another part of it. You know, Bob was into it, so I got into it. But yeah, the thing is, he's an endlessly fascinating character.

SIEGEL: I've been picking the tracks here. Why don't you choose one that's especially meaningful to you that we haven't heard yet.

BURNETT: I like that tune "Spanish Mary" a lot. I think that's a good one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPANISH MARY")

RHIANNON GIDDENS: (Singing) There were three sailors bold and true with cargo they did carry. They sailed away on the ocean blue for the love of Spanish Mary.

SIEGEL: This is Rhiannon Giddens.

BURNETT: She's the singer with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. And she's an extraordinary talent.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPANISH MARY")

GIDDENS: Beggar man, beggar man, tell me no lie. Is it a mystery to live? Or is it a mystery to die?

BURNETT: Yeah, there's some full-strength Bob Dylan in here. These aren't scraps.

SIEGEL: Sounds like his writing was almost too productive, that he was writing too many lyrics for him to possibly put the music.

BURNETT: I think that's exactly what happened. And I think some of them just got left in a box and forgotten about. You know, it's irresistible to get to collaborate with a 27-year-old Bob Dylan. We felt maybe we could catch up with him, you know, at this point (laughing).

SIEGEL: Well, T Bone Burnett, thanks a lot for talking with us about this album.

BURNETT: I'm so happy to do so.

SIEGEL: The album is called "Lost On The River." It is a collection of songs based on old Bob Dylan lyrics written way back in the late-'60s, to which T Bone Burnett's gang have all put their music to.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOST ON THE RIVER")

GIDDENS: (Singing) 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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.