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Bessie Smith

(by R.Danko, J.R. Robertson)

[Peter Viney]  Notes by Peter Viney

Thanks for contributions from the Guestbook(s).

Bessie Smith first appeared on The Basement Tapes in 1975. It was immediately noticeable for the outstanding anthemic quality of the song (why hadn't they released it before?) and more dubiously because the sound and production quality was markedly better than most of the other tracks on there.

Bessie Smith would fit onto any of the early albums. Robbie and Rick, who wrote it together, sing it together, with unusually Robbie taking lead. It's a vocal blend which works superbly, but which is rare in their later work. There is a touch of recording muddiness on the vocal which pulls it below the Big Pink sound, though the organ is piercingly clear and the bass rolls along.

This is what one of Rick Danko's obituaries said:

If Rick Danko's legacy can be seen and felt anywhere -- and it can be, in a million tack-marked locales across the American map -- it is here, within "The Basement Tapes." Look to his sly, striding bass lines, his see-saw fiddle, his odd, other-worldly harmonies with Dylan. Look to his and Robbie Robertson's song, Bessie Smith, a sepia-styled valentine to the fine line between respect and adoration, and the ways in which music blurs them both into love.1

The singer takes the fictional persona of an old flame of long-dead blues singer Bessie Smith (1892 to 1937) who's on his way to see her. Robertson acts out a role throughout and ends up with the singer's dilemma -- in reverse -- the narrator can't decide whether he's in love with Bessie or her voice. The lyrics are as transparent as The Band got in those years, and it starts out with a blues cliché Going down the road... perhaps second only to Woke up this morning ... as a starter line. The link to The Band's late '60s work is that you can read it as a song set in the past with someone going to see their old flame Bessie Smith in the 1920s or 1930s, or more ominously Bessie is an appointment with death, if you see the singer as in the here and now going to the old flame who has already passed over. Mind you, he would have been getting on a bit even in 1967! While the song is about Bessie Smith, there's no attempt to echo her style or sound in it.

Greil Marcus said:

There's the lovely idea of Bessie Smith written and sung by Robbie and Rick as the plaint of one of Bessie's lovers, who can't figure out if he's lost his heart to the woman herself or the way she sings.2

[Bessie Smith]

The original sleeve notes to the double album suggest that Levon was back from his nearly two year exile for 'the tunes by The Band'. As he arrived late on, this is a pointer to some at least of these songs being post-basement.

It didn't take long for listeners to figure that the Band tracks on The Basement Tapes might date from later than the rest of the Dylan / Hawks material. They were clearly studio rather than basement recordings for starters.

Paul Nelson's 1975 Rolling Stone review says:

The music was eight years old, but it could have been made eight minutes or eight decades ago; it wouldn't have mattered. It had once been illegal, sold under the counter. Hell, even now it wasn't complete -- these things never are. Nobody had even heard any of the Band's songs before -- they were sapped before "Music from Big Pink" -- and at least four of them (Yazoo Street Scandal, Katie's Been Gone, Bessie Smith, Ain't No More Cane) would have been as difficult to hide as a bosomy blonde under a bushel basket.3

Yes, they would have been difficult to hide. Barney Hoskyns mentions that The Band's Shangri-La studio in Los Angeles was first used for the "mixing" of The Basement Tapes4.' Greil Marcus said in the liner notes:

All of the tracks have been remastered; highlights have been brought out, tones sharpened, hiss removed, and so on5

As the years went on, some began to wonder if they were fixing, i.e. recording, rather than mixing. Pat Brennan pointed out in the Band Guestbook:

Much of what you listen to in the Band tunes on that release was not recorded in the basement in 67 but rather at Shangri-La some eight years later. You can hear Robbie guitar tones that he didn't develop until the mid-70's supposedly flavoring '67 recordings. A Garth sax solo where none existed. Vocals added, removed. 6

Clinton Heylin in the opinionated Bob Dylan -- The Recording Sessions rails against Robbie's 1975 production. Heylin is more paranoid about Robbie than Levon on a bad day, suggesting the whole concept was designed to play down Richard Manuel's role as The Band's first writer.

At least three Richard Manuel compositions recorded in Big Pink in 1967 -- You Say You Love Me, Beautiful Thing and Ferdinand the Imposter -- were omitted from the set possibly because they highlighted how Manuel, not Robertson, was the first to pen original Band material.7

This is nonsensical, as while You Say You Love Me and Beautiful Thing may not have made it to the 1975 album, they are only fragments of markedly lower fidelity than the songs that did. And Robbie wrote Ferdinand the Imposter, not Richard. This should have been obvious to anyone with a passing acquaintance with Robbie's interest in the Trickster motif, and was confirmed with its official release as a bonus track on the Music From Big Pink remaster in 2000. Not only that but if you go back to Ronnie Hawkins Mr Dynamo or the Levon and The Hawks singles, Robbie was already 'a writer.' Furthermore, the inclusion of Tears of Rage (Dylan/Manuel), Katie's Been Gone (Robertson/Manuel), Ruben Remus (Robertson/Manuel) and Orange Juice Blues (Manuel) hardly suggests a conspiracy to play down Richard's contribution.

Heylin even disputes Levon's version of which tracks he played on, archaeology taking precedence over personal memory. Levon is quite clear that Bessie Smith was among the songs he was shown immediately on his return to the fold in the late Fall of 1967 8 (Which doesn't help us with when it was put on tape).

Little Bessie (in Up On Cripple Creek) is an echo of Rick's song Bessie Smith from the basement tapes. People always wanted to know who she was, and I'd tell 'em she was Caledonia's cousin.9

Note that Levon says it was 'Rick's song'. If we accept the co-credit, I'd guess Rick melody, Robbie lyrics. The melody has echoes of other Rick songs, while the role-playing narrative set in a different era is classic Robbie.

Heylin also says that two tracks were Richard Manuel demos with piano only, on which the complete backing was done in 1975, and the rest were heavily overdubbed by Robertson. Robbie Robertson has categorically denied this. The most disputed tracks are Bessie Smith and Ain't No More Cane, allegedly produced by Rob Fraboni in new versions in 1975. It was later reported (at second-hand) in the Guestbook that Rob Fraboni was the source of this information. There is a circulating tape of Band-only basement sessions, which was due to become the sixth volume in the bootleg series The Genuine Basement Tapes. It was never released. This includes unreleased items, like a guitar instrumental version of Ruben Remus as well as other versions of Orange Juice Blues and Yazoo Street Scandal. Most significantly, Bessie Smith isn't on it.

It was alternatively suggested that Bessie Smith was an earlier studio recording, and the 1975 "mixing" had actually been a case of remixing the song to make it sound more lo-fi and primitive, so that it would appear to come from the basement at Big Pink. Then the original source for the recording could have been The Band's demo session for Albert Grossman at Columbia Studio E on September 5, 1967.10 In which case, they didn't make it sound primitive enough.

In 2000, the Band albums were remastered, and Bessie Smith appeared as a bonus track on 1971's Cahoots. It sounds richer and fuller, but it's the same recording.

The song had been around since at least The Band sessions but Robbie is certain that it was recorded sometime between that album and 'Stage Fright' and he distinctly recalls deciding that the song should stay in the can as The Band had already prominently used the name Bessie in Up On Cripple Creek. Robbie makes a rare appearance singing lead, with harmonies provided by Rick.11

[Bessie Smith's grave]
Bessie Smith's grave

What Robbie fails to explain is how it turned up in 1975 purporting to be cut in the basement at Big Pink. Everyone had guessed that it hadn't been. There's no doubt that The Basement Tapes were a more solid commercial prospect than recent Band albums had been. David Powell pointed this out in the Band Guestbook:

When Dylan finally decided to officially release some of the Basement Tapes material, I'm sure that the farthest thing from his mind was to preserve the songs as they were originally recorded. He never intended to commercially release the stuff to begin with, so maybe he decided that once he did release them it would be on his terms. From his standpoint, and apparently from that of Robertson, if they were going to see the light of day, they would try to upgrade them to studio-quality sound. After all, Robertson & The Band had just set up the Shangri-La studio, and Robertson & Fraboni had all this fancy equipment to play around with, including Dolby noise reduction. The boys had their toys and one would assume that Columbia compensated them to prepare the tapes for release. (Just as Columbia paid Greil Marcus to write the liner notes.) Don't bite the hand that feeds you. As Rob Fraboni revealed in the VH-1 interview back in June (1999), the Shangri-La equipment was originally rented from the Village Recorder studios and the house itself was leased. Any revenue from studio projects would have been sorely needed to offset the cost of the equipment & house lease. So maybe the over-riding factor regarding the official release of the Basement Tapes in the minds of Dylan & The Band, and certainly Columbia, was to make some money. Hence, everything was done from a commercial rather than an artistic perspective. In some way they were also exacting revenge against the bootleggers, by giving the public something significantly different than the earlier, illegal versions. 12

Don Juan, in Carlos Castaneda's saga, urges Carlos to 'erase his personal history' and it might be that the line stuck in Robbie Robertson's head. It must be said that if any subterfuge did take place, all the Band members were part of it, as was Dylan, and no one blew the whistle. Unfortunately, The Band have a steady history of falsifying song origins. Live At Watkins Glen is a total fake, largely made up of Rock of Ages outtakes and studio left-overs. The Last Waltz is heavily overdubbed. Some of Rock of Ages stems from the afternoon rehearsals, not the live concert (which accounts for the fabulous sound balance). And some of the Band tracks on The Basement Tapes -- such as this song -- date from later than 1967. If they had Bessie Smith knocking around at the time of Cahoots, they were foolish not to use it. It would have been one of the best three tracks, if not the best.

The box set A Musical History failed to resolve the question. Rob Bowman's sleeve notes don't dodge the issue though. He confirms that Ain't No More Cane was a Big Pink outtake, and not a 1975 recording. Levon had said that Ain't No More Cane was where The Band truly discovered their vocal blend for the first time, and it had also featured in their concerts up to 1969. Bowman then says that:

Bessie Smith may have been recorded for 'Music From Big Pink', although Robbie is fairly certain that it was cut in sessions between the first two albums, and considered for inclusion on 'The Band.'13

So it's now switched from between the second and third albums, to between the first and second. If it was that early, it would have been easier to change the name in Up On Cripple Creek to Rosie or Betty or Nancy or whatever, than to scrap the song. Robbie's earlier quote, placing it between The Band and Stage Fright says they'd already used the name. While Bessie in Lake Charles, Lousiana could have become Betty without much trouble, Bessie Smith is a real person.

A Musical History contains this information on the song:

Bessie Smith 4:16
COMPOSER: Rick Danko/Robbie Robertson
ORIGINALLY RELEASED: "The Basement Tapes" Columbia LP C2X 33682, 1975
REC DATE: Probably late 1968 - unknown studio
Produced By John Simon

Then move on to 2007, and the release of Endless Highway: The Music of The Band. The sleeve notes on this tribute album are by Woodstock musician Artie Traum. He has this to say:

One bitterly cold Winter evening in 1969 I bumped into Robbie Robertson and Rick Danko in the cookie aisle of the Grand Union in Woodstock, a sleepy hamlet in upstate New York. I had just come from a long rehearsal with my band Happy and Artie Traum.We were one song shy of finishing our debut album for Capitol Records. Rick, Robbie and I chatted for a while in the harsh flourescent light somewhere between the Fig Newtons and Mallomars. After a while, Robbie said, "Hey, we have a song that's perfect for you guys." Rick sang a verse of Going Down The Road to See Bessie on the spot. I was so in awe of The Band that it took a minute to realize they were offering the first recording to us. Rick shook his head and said, with his slight Canadian accent, 'I'll teach you the harmonies. Let's get together in a couple of days, eh?'14

That doesn't pin the Band's recording date, but it does prove when the song was around, certainly by late 1969, and that they'd got as far as working out harmonies for it. I'd also trust Artie Traum's memory and dates because it was a major event in his life, but unlikely to be so in Rick or Robbie's lives. Barney Hoskyns had told the same story in Across The Great Divide, but in his version Artie Traum says that Robbie and Rick took him back to Wittenberg Road to teach him the song. Barney Hoskyns assigns it to the Big Pink sessions in his unpublished liner notes for the 2000 reissues:

Hard to date this, a Danko-Robertson song which originally appeared on The Basement Tapes in 1975. Featuring Rick and Robbie as co-leads, the track almost certainly hails from the Big Pink sessions in early 1968, either those held at A&R in New York or the ones at Capitol and Gold Star in L.A.. Why it didn't make the album is a mystery, since it remains one of the loveliest Band songs of the period.15

I asked for help on The Band Guestbook, and Pat Brennan posted:

Bessie Smith is weird in that I don't think there are overdubs on it but I don't think it is a basement tape either. The drums are well recorded but the entire song doesn't sound like it came from the recording process of either of the first two albums. To me it sounds closer to The Stones I Throw than anything else. When Robertson claimed it was a Cahoots outtake, I had to chuckle. I figured there weren't enough outtakes from those sessions to fill out the CD so he plugged that in there along with those awful radio commercials. 16

Pat Brennan added:

The changes make dating Bessie difficult. Some clues. It is mono, no stereo separation at all, unlike the A Musical History basement tracks. Peter Stone Brown pointed out the use of the acoustic guitar. I would guess it is Levon playing drums -- it reminds me of The Weight in his choice of fills. There is a bit of tape delay on the vocals which would take it out of the basement but the overall sound is muddy which would bring into question whether they were in a real studio, either NY or LA. The Orange Juice Blues versions, in contrast, are very clean in comparison. It certainly isn't the acoustic space of GoldStar or Capitol in LA, and it definitely isn't Sammy's place. Baffling as it doesn't fit the profile of anyplace they recorded. Perhaps its a basement tape song after Levon arrived but before they did demos; perhaps Garth came up with a way to get a bit of delay on the voices without using another tape machine. Hard to tell.17

Norbert checked it out with John Simon, who replied:

I have no idea. It was such an unimportant recording. It was just like a test of the studio or the equipment. An easy, simple song.18

It is a straightforward song, but it's an excellent example of Rick Danko's melodic gift, and a rare example of Robbie as lead vocalist. It may have been unimportant to them at the time, but Jeff Tweedy of Wilco and Norah Jones both note it as a favourite song.

So the song was known to be around earlier than the 1975 recordings or mixing sessions with Fraboni, and it's unlikely that they didn't commit it to tape at the time. I'd take Levon's word that it was written in the basement era, regardless of when it was recorded. Whether it was twixt Big Pink and the Brown Album, or just after the Brown album, we won't know. I'm prepared to bet that Heylin was totally wrong and that the recorded version does not date from 1975. We know that The Band did New York sessions on September 10th 1968, trying out studios as potential sites for the follow-up to Music From Big Pink, and that Key to The Highway released on the Music From Big Pink remaster in 2000 comes from this session.19 I'd say that this was recorded in a different space to Bessie Smith -- the ambience is quite different. But some recording was taking place between the first and second albums, as Robbie's "second" fairly certain memory suggested.

Peter Stone Brown said:

I agree that the ambiance is not the same as Key to the Highway, but the configuration would have been different, because the lead singer and also the instrumentation (primarily the use of acoustic guitar) would have required a different microphone configuration, though the ambiance sounds a lot closer to Katie's Been Gone. Its inclusion on the "Cahoots" remaster is just silly. Stylistically, writing wise it's way closer to Big Pink sort of, but its closest companion would be Get Up Jake, which in the original Music From Big Pink/The Band songbook was included in the Big Pink and not The Band section.20

The instrumentation gives a clue of sorts. These are the credits on A Musical History:

Rick Danko - vocal, bass
Levon Helm - drums, vocal
Garth Hudson - organ
Richard Manuel - piano
Robbie Robertson - vocal, guitar

I can't hear Levon on backing vocals at all. There is some evidence in the arrangement. If it had been intended for The Band album, it seems likely that there would have been a wider, more eclectic range of instruments used. Its basic line up suggests earlier.


Bob Dylan & The Band, The Basement Tapes, 1975
The Band, Cahoots (Remaster), 2000
The Band, A Musical History,2005

These are all the same version. There are no known live recordings.

Cover versions



1 Rick Connelly, Last Thoughts on Rick Danko, Renaissance Online, January 2000

2 Greil Marcus, sleeve notes, The Basement Tapes (1975)

3 Paul Nelson, The Basement Tapes, Rolling Stone review, 1975

4 Barney Hoskyns, Gadfly online, March / April 2001

5 Greil Marcus, sleeve notes, The Basement Tapes (1975)

6 Pat Brennan, Band Guestbook archive, early April 1999 (where the issue was discussed over several days)

7 Clinton Heylin, Bob Dylan -- The Recording Sessions, page 68

8 Levon Helm, This Wheel's On Fire, page 156

9 Levon Helm, This Wheel's On Fire, page 196

10 See Harm Van Sleen, Mixed Up Confusion on The Band site.

11 Rob Bowman, sleeve notes, Cahoots remaster 2000

12 David Powell, Band Guestbook, April 1999

13 Rob Bowman, sleeve notes, A Musical History, 2005

14 Artie Traum, sleevenotes, Endless Highway, 2007

15 Barney Hoskyns, unpublished liner notes to Cahoots, 2000, Rock's Backpages

16 Pat Brennan, "Band Guestbook," 11 February 2007

17 Pat Brennan, "Band Guestbook," 13 February 2007

18 John Simon, by e-mail, 13 February 2007

19 Rob Bowman, sleevenotes to Music From Big Pink remaster, 2000

20 Peter Stone Brown, "Band Guestbook," 11 February 2007

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