The Band, “Bessie Smith” from The Basement Tapes (1968): Across the Great Divide

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Arriving in official form so many years later, the Band’s 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.

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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  • psb

    Of all the people quoted above, Rob Bowman is the one who’s correct. The song was first released as “Going Down The Road To See Bessie,” by Happy & Artie Traum on their eponymous debut on Capitol released in 1969. So clearly the song dates from The Basement Tapes period. The style of playing, the sound of the instruments and especially the sound of the voices point not to 1975 but six or seven years before.

    So while it was included on the Cahoots reissue, where it really belonged was on the Big Pink reissue.

  • Leggy Mountbatten

    What truly sucks aboutt he inclusion of the song is readily evident on the version released on the expanded “Cahoots” -that Robertson had the sound quality muddied deliberately to make it sound like a “Basement Tape”. The “Cahoots” version is clear and crisp, while the “Basement” version has a lot of fidelity removed from it and sounds like it was duped down several times to get that “authentic” sound. Just awful, and greedy on Robertson’s part.

  • Shelley

    This is a fantastic song. When The Basement Tapes came out in ’75 I never heard it or any of the tracks as sounding out of place. It wasn’t until CD reissues and books like Heylin’s when I learned that not everything was from the basement itself. By that time the album was so engrained, I think of Bessie Smith as a Basement recording, authentic or not. My question is why The Band didn’t use it previously for one of their own LPs, it’s a gem.