Bob Dylan and the Band, “Ain’t No More Cane [Take 2]” (1967): One Track Mind

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A scarifying traditional work song, “Ain’t No More Cane” has a lengthy history with both Bob Dylan and the Band. Set amidst the brutal conditions of a hard-labor work detail cutting sugar cane along Brazos River, where many Texas prisons once stood, the song was a natural fit for the relaxed surroundings that eventually produced a series of now-legendary bootlegs and then the officially released Basement Tapes in 1975.

Still, we’ve never heard “Ain’t No Cane” as it will be featured on the forthcoming Basement Tapes Complete: The Bootleg Series Vol. 11 (due November 4, 2014 via Columbia/Legacy). Dylan takes a pained lead vocal on a version marked “Take 2” before a coiled, portentious Band arrangement. Every bit of the sadness, the defeated resignation, of the previously issued version remains — but here it’s pulled to a visceral, slow-moving tautness. Apparently something broke down, however, as “Ain’t No More Cane” lasts less than two minutes before departing. Still, there’s no small amount of wonder in that 1:57 as Dylan and the Band breathe new life into age-old sentiments for a modern era.

Reanimating moments like this, recognizing the beating heart in the middle of them, eventually led both to previously undiscovered vistas in the coming years. With “Ain’t No More Cane,” they embraced tradition, even as others — remember this was the summer of ’67 — were merrily casting it aside. You can hear the doors creaking open as they jounrey toward Music from Big Pink, and toward John Wesley Harding.

The Band’s arrangement had been patterned after north Louisiana bluesman Huddie “Lead Belly” Leadbetter’s take on “Ain’t No More Cane,” something that must have seeped into Levon Helm’s consciousness while growing up in Arkansas. The Band would memorably played this track at Woodstock, at Isle of Wight and also as part of the Festival Express over the next few years. Bob Dylan, meanwhile, had been performing it since at least the early ’60s, having likely found “Ain’t No More Cane” via recordings like 1958’s Texas Folk Songs Sung by Alan Lomax — in which the folklorist memorably misidentifies the river as “Brazis.” Lomax also collected this track in American Ballads and Folksongs.

Yet for all of that history, they discovered something with a new complexity together in the basement of an upstate New York house dubbed Big Pink — not to mention something entirely different than the originally issued 1975 version.

There, we heard Helm playing mandolin and Garth Hudson on a resonant accordion, with each of the group’s members taking a verse — starting with Helm, then guitarist Robbie Robertson, bassist Rick Danko and finally Richard Manuel, who added typically idiosyncratic drums. This take — colloquial and reminescent, though it may be — was likely recorded, along with “Bessie Smith,” during follow up sessions meant to complete the official release.

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