All Directions: did Dylan really change in the Basement?

By Tony Attwood

This is part of the series “All directions at once” which seeks to explore how Dylan’s writing evolved and developed over time.

Recent episodes are

The whole series is indexed at All Directions at Once

Leaving aside the New Basement Tapes notebooks (the abandoned lyrics from the period around 1967, which were later turned into songs by other artists, Dylan wrote 63 songs in the Basement.  Many are of little importance musically, and are nothing more than the guys playing around.  That’s not to knock the process of musicians improvising together, but it is not the same as writing and completing a song to make it ready for recording or performance on stage.

What is interesting in terms of the “All Directions” series is whether Dylan radically changed the themes he was writing about during his time in the Basement, perhaps doing so as a result of the regular work with the musicians day after day.  Or was the Basement merely an extension of his regular approach in which he had sketches of songs that could then be turned into performances?

Going through the 63 basement songs what I find interesting in terms of subject matter is that it is not in any way a reflection of where Dylan had been before.  Indeed it seems to me to be a significant change in the landscape of his songs.  And in fact when he left the Basement and created his next album, the same happens again.  He goes off in another direction.

As ever with my attempts to classify each song in one or two words, opinions are bound to vary, but I suspect the overall list of themes that others would come up with, if doing this exercise, are going to be similar to mine – even if the terminology is different.  A “lost love” song is a “lost love” song, a “blues” number stays exactly that.

This table takes all the songs Dylan wrote from 1959 to 1969 and ascribes a simple subject title to each.   The series from 1959 to 1966 already has its own table

1959-63: The first five directions

Before the Basement

So now taking that data and the years up to the end of the 60s this is what I have…

Theme 1959-66 B’ment 1967 JWH 1967 1968/9 Total
Art 2 2
Blues (world weary) 9 9
Change 4 4
City 1 1
Civil rights / social commentary 6 6
Dada 12 12
Death 4 4
Disaster 1 1
Disdain 6 6
Do the right thing 2 2
Escape 1 1
Future /eternity 1 1 2
Gambling 1 1
History 1 1
Homage 1 1
How we see the world 1 1
Humour 18 4 22
Protest / hurting / despair 3 3
Individualism 6 1 7
Justice 2 2
Kafka 5 5
Leaving 1 1
Life is a mess 11 11
Lost Love 20 10 4 34
Love, desire, lust 13 13 2 26
Modern Life (tragedy of) 4 4
Moving on 27 16 43
Nothing changes 4 4
On the run 1 1
Party freaks 3 3
Patriotism 3 3
Protest/rebellion 17 17
Randomness/surrealism/ stream of consciousness 4 1 5
Relationships 1 1
Religion 2 2
Self interest 1 1
Sex 1 1
Surrealism 3 3
Woman is in control 6 6
World weary 1 1

What stands out to me here is that apart from three of his regular favourite themes of love, lost love, and moving on, plus the occasional spot of humour, Dylan moved onto writing on completely new themes.  The Basement really was an occasion for seeing what new themes he could discover.   Protest and rebellion, the blues, disdain, dada – there is no sign of any of these any more.  There is an awfully large amount of “moving on.”

At the same time some new themes were explored in numerous songs, with the theme of s “life is a mess” (11 songs), standing out.

But then Dylan did not take any of what he had explored in the Basement into his new writing.  It is as if this were a set of ideas he tried, and then threw away.  Only three songs from JWH actually touched on themes that Dylan had written about in the Basement.  eight of the compositions were on themes he had never used before, covering history, homage and (most of all) Kafka.

So Dylan had drawn a line and was clearly not going to give us on his favoured themes of love, lost love, and moving on.  Instead he certainly used the Basement to think around different corners, and find directions he had never considered before.

With John Wesley Harding, the story is that Bob had a contract to create a new album, so he simply did that.  His own tale is that he sat on a train writing to lyrics – and even if we accept this, it surely seems most likely that he wrote the two country songs that have no connection with the rest of the album after the recording of the rest of the album had concluded (and presumably they had discovered that they didn’t have enough to make a full album).

Here are the topics

  • Kafka 5
  • History 1
  • Eternity 1
  • Poetic homage 1
  • Do your own thing / individualism 1
  • Stream of consciousness 1
  • Love 2

Whether the story of writing to complete the contract is true or not, it is interesting that Bob didn’t feel like using the new compositions from the time in the basement.  It is possible that they were all considered part of the contract of writing songs for other performers, but it seems to me also likely that having moved out of  the basement he figuratively turned a new page in his writing, as he turned a new page in terms of where he lived.

Interestingly also, there was no sign of Kafka in the basement – I wonder if he read Metamorphosis and The Castle in the break between the Basement and the commencement of the writing of JWH…

What Dylan did say in his interviews was that he had written some homespun folk songs which didn’t have repeated lines – and that second point of course is true, at least in terms of the lack of repeated lines such as is found in a chorus.

But what Dylan has done is taken the music he has been playing, to a completely new place.  If there was an antecedent to “Drifter’s Escape” in the canon of popular or folk music, I’ve missed it.  Who else has used Kafa as a source of themes for two and a half minute songs?

It was indeed a revolutionary moment, and JWH is a revolutionary album because of its song content.  As revolutionary as “Johanna” or “Desolation Row” and the other masterpieces were themselves each revolutionary in their own ways.

And then, what did Dylan do next having delivered on his contract?  Well, actually nothing.  He had a year out, during which time he wrote one song – “Lay Lady Lay” and even that he delivered late for the movie it was supposed to headline.  Which brings us to 1969, and a resumption of songwriting.

Interestingly the process of writing in 1969 began with a co-composition with George Harrison (Nowhere to go).  I’m not clear who wrote what in this song, but it sounds to me like Dylan lyrics but certainly not Dylan’s music.

And maybe the song had a value in Dylan’s life, because after that he started writing again, and ended the year with 15 songs.  There is of course some dispute about the provenance of some of these songs:  “Minstrel Boy” for example is counted as a Basement song, but it seems it was never written down at the time, and when it was set in stone, it had changed somewhat.

Indeed the year is a curious mixture with songs that we might well immediately recognise as Dylan (“I threw it all away”), songs that are clearly part of his country music period (“Country Pie”) and real oddities like “Champaign Illinois”.

All in all the impression I get is of a man trying to find his way back into composing.  Indeed to return to the first song of the year (“Nowhere to go”) I find myself asking how could two songwriters of such brilliance create a song that is so hard to listen to, let alone perform?

As a result of this strange hinterland that Dylan had slipped into, there was no real direction beyond the notion that there is no direction because there is nowhere to go.

And inevitably finding themes in such a year is tough.  But I’ve had a go…

  • Celebration of a city: 1
  • Escape: 1
  • Lost love: 2
  • Love 4
  • On the run: 1
  • Self-interest: 1
  • Sex: 1

From my point of view of trying to see Dylan’s compositions as moving through time like a wave, sliding up and down, I think we’ve got to a moment where the wave crashes on the shore.  It really doesn’t have anywhere else to go.  As the subject matter shows…

Of the 16 songs written in 1968/9 what would we remember thereafter? A fairly good guide comes from seeing how often Bob performed the songs….  totals are taken from the official Dylan site.

  1. Lay Lady Lay: 407
  2. Tonight I’ll be Staying Here With You: 144
  3. Country Pie (sex? country life?): 136
  4. To be alone with you (love): 126
  5. Tell me it isn’t true (love): 76
  6. I threw it all away (lost love; love is all there is): 48
  7. One more night (lost love): 2
  8. Living the blues: 1

That is the list of the eight out of the 16 songs that were played, and indeed if we discount the songs played just once or twice that is six out of 16.  Excluding “Lay Lady Lay”, written the year before all the other songs here, these top performance rankings of between 126 and 144 put them, in terms of performance alongside, “Man gave name to all the animals” and “Duncan and Brady.”

Of course Dylan has always been eccentric in his choice of songs to perform, but the lack of any stand out performance favourite from the album perhaps gives some indication that Bob himself was not sure where he was going next.

So what are we to make of this period?  First, Bob had his first year off from writing, and then when he did come back, the excitement and the new directions seemed to be lacking from the album.  Which is curious, since we often think that after having a break artists will come back refreshed.  It seemed not, in this case.

Bob in fact was the other way around.  Having played, improvised and composed seemingly all night and half the day through the Basement Tape months, Bob ended up with a range of masterpieces.  And each written straight one after the other!

  • This Wheel’s on Fire
  • I shall be released
  • Too Much of Nothing
  • Tears of rage
  • Quinn the Eskimo – The Mighty Quinn

And then although Bob didn’t seem too worried about performing the John Wesley Harding songs I think many fans would see a lot of them as being of high merit – including of course his most performed song of all “All Along the Watchtower”.

So in the end perhaps we should best see 1968/9 as an extended recovery period.  Beyond “Lay Lady Lady” would any of these songs make the top 50 list of Dylan songs for anyone who was minded to create such a list?  Yes, undoubtedly one or two, because we all have different tastes, but still, not exactly Bob’s most prolific and successful two years.

Obviously for mere mortals toiling away in the world of songwriting, such a two year period would be a huge success, but for Bob, perhaps not.

What else?

You can read about the writers who kindly contribute to Untold Dylan in our About the Authors page.   And you can keep an eye on our current series by checking the listings on the home page

You’ll also find, at the top of this page, and index to some of our series established over the years.  Series we are currently running include

  • The art work of Bob Dylan’s albums
  • The Never Ending Tour year by year with recordings
  • Bob Dylan and Stephen Crane
  • Beautiful Obscurity – the unexpected covers
  • All Directions at Once

You’ll find links to all of them on the home page of this site

If you have an article or an idea for an article which could be published on Untold Dylan, please do write to with the details – or indeed the article itself.

We also have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with getting on for 10,000 members. Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link    And because we don’t do political debates on our Facebook group there is a separate group for debating Bob Dylan’s politics – Icicles Hanging Down


One comment

  1. The traditional murder ballad “Duncan and Brady” is also called “Been On The Job Too Long”

    Referenced in Bob Dylan’s “Black Rider” –
    Black rider, black rider, you’ve been on the job too long

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