The Band, “Yazoo Street Scandal” from The Basement Tapes (1968): Across the Great Divide

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While The Basement Tapes’ “Orange Juice Blues” found the Band taking their first tentative steps toward something utterly brand new, the fable-teller’s yowl of “Yazoo Street Scandal” provides a road map to their destination.

“Orange Juice Blues” — our focus on the debut installment of Across the Great Divide — possessed much of the danger and emotion, the knife’s-edge sense of adventure, that the future members of the Band brought to their 1966 dates with Bob Dylan. “Yazoo Street Scandal,” on the other hand, fits in both thematically and musically with the rest of their collaborative outburst in the months after Dylan’s motorcycle crash in the spring of 1967 — setting the stage for a moment of lasting musical intrigue called Music from Big Pink.

Version 2 of “Yazoo Street Scandal” eventually found its way onto the belated 1975 release of The Basement Tapes, which claimed to include early Band recordings sprinkled in among a series of Dylan-fronted songs, but the song was actually an outtake from the sessions for Music from Big Pink, and was later correctly appended to that album’s 2000 reissue.

Recording at A&R Studios in New York City in January 1968, the Band explores a red-lit, gothic landscape — with Levon Helm serving as our vagabond tour guide. Guitarist Robbie Robertson gets the sole songwriting credit, as per usual, but the ringing specificity of “Yazoo Street Scandal” could only have sprung from the fertile memory of a native-born Southerner like Helm.

He certainly handles the lyric as if its his own. In fact, there is no small amount of wonder, today, in hearing Helm — felled in 2012 after battling throat cancer — letting loose this wild-cat wail. He sings with a shattering force, risking everything with a vocal that at times has a serrated, almost out-of-control power. In the end, however, that likely accounts for its remaining on the cutting-room floor, considering the coiled pastoral focus that would surround Big Pink.

Meanwhile, Rick Danko’s loping, always active bass acts like another lead instrument, adding to the sense of heartbroken propulsion as the track’s protagonist is introduced to a seductress who takes him to a very brink — not just of heartbreak but of a kind of horrifyingly blissful death. Garth Hudson’s organ acts as a Greek chorus, cajoling Helm even as he sinks ever lower, while Manuel — taking over for Helm at the traps — plays a perfectly shambolic structure on the brushes.

The carnal, harrowing “Yazoo Street Scandal” points directly to subsequent triumphs for Helm and the Band like “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Ophelia,” among others. Still, as with “Orange Juice Blues,” it’s probably a bit too edgy, still rooted in their rough-and-randy days as the Hawks, to have gelled on Big Pink.

Here, we find the Band continuing to tinker with the recipe, even as the kettle starts to boil.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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  • Pat Brennan

    Fairly certain this version of Yazoo was recorded at Shangri La Studios in 1975.

    • Nick DeRiso

      There are, of course, a number of conflicting stories surrounding the recording of ‘The Basement Tapes.’ Liner notes on successive editions of the album point to sessions anywhere between 1967-70. Later, we learned of additional sessions in 1975. For the purposes of this series, I am referencing sequential research by Luigi Cesari from a trusted Band-focused site found here: http://theband.hiof.no/albums/session_discography.html.

  • Pat Brennan

    If you listen to the audio quality of the bass and drums alone, you can tell it is not a basement tape.

    • Nick DeRiso

      Yep. As noted in the piece, Cesari has these sessions taking place at A&R Studios in New York City in January 1968, after ‘The ‘Basement Tapes.’

  • Shelley

    I find the version on the Big Pink CD reissue sonically inferior to the Basement Tapes track. I think it’s the same recording, but there’s a punchiness missing from the bass and drums on the Big Pink reissue.

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