Arriving in official form so many years later, the fabled late-1960s Basement Tapes project was almost destined to disappoint. Too much mythology had come to surround their Bob Dylan collaborations by 1975.
Some wondered about the timing, accusing Robbie Robertson of masterminding the belated release as a money grab — being as the Band hadn’t released a stand-alone album of new material since 1971’s Cahoots. Robertson quickly countered such notions, telling the New Music Express: “It just popped up one day. We thought we’d see what we had. I started going through stuff, and sorting it out, trying to make it stand up for a record that wasn’t recorded professionally. I also tried to include some things that people haven’t heard before, if possible.”
Meanwhile, an original 14-track Dwarf Music acetate of some rough Dylan run-throughs from the period — sent to publishing companies for possible use as cover songs — had already been so widely bootlegged that the 1975 edition would suffer from endless comparisons. Not all of them, as in the case of the bluesy lament “Bessie Smith,” were favorable.
The problem wasn’t Rick Danko’s sweetly romantic doubled vocal with Robertson, and it certainly wasn’t ace-in-the-hole Garth Hudson’s movie-house reverie at the organ. Instead, it’s the decision to include a song so far removed from the original 1967 Basement Tapes sessions, both in atmospherics — and, it seems, in time and space.
Engineer Rob Fabroni, who worked on the final sequencing of The Basement Tapes at the Band’s Shangri-La studios, says “Bessie Smith” was one of four new songs recorded in 1975 to round out the new release. In the liner notes to the 2005 Band anthology A Musical History, Rob Bowman says the tune was probably the product of a late-1968 session. Luigi Cesari, this series’ main source for sessions information, agrees. When “Bessie Smith” was included on the expanded reissue of Cahoots, in 2000, however, that seemed to confirm its place among the 1971 era of songs. But the project’s liner notes quote Robertson as saying that the tune was recorded sometime between The Band and Stage Fright, issued as their second and third albums in 1969-70.
Whatever its origins, Sid Griffin — in Million Dollar Bash: Bob Dylan, the Band and the Basement Tapes, from 2007 — aptly describes the inclusion of “Bessie Smith” as “the most far-fetched” on the 1975 compilation. Clinton Heylin, in his exhaustive research for 1997’s Bob Dylan: The Recording Sessions, is even more blunt — saying latter-period tracks like this one “pollute” the original concept, and “reduce its stature.”
What we’re left with, in the end, is the music. While in tone and in feel, the song simply doesn’t fit with the rest of The Basement Tapes, “Bessie Smith” certainly stands as a minor treasure for fans of co-writer Danko. With all due respect to next-gen interpreters like Norah Jones, Danko’s loping bass, melancholy romanticism and heart-opening vocal style — some 14 years after his too-early passing — remain as distinctive as they are unmatched.