When a trove of never-used Bob Dylan lyrics from the mid-1960s was uncovered by the songwriter's archivists, producer T-Bone Burnett went to work. After Dylan's permission was secured, Burnett invited five musicians — Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford of Mumford and Sons, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Taylor Goldsmith of the band Dawes — to write music for the lyrics. Essentially, they were finishing Dylan's work.
It all took place over two weeks in a studio at Capitol Records and the process was filmed for a Showtime documentary, “Lost Songs: The Basement Tapes Continued.” (Not to be confused with Dylan's "Basement Tapes Complete," a just-released CD collection of everything he recorded with The Band during the same era.)
The documentary's director, Sam Jones, and Rhiannon Giddens sat down for an interview with The Frame.
First, Sam, let's clarify: The songs for your project were created from lyrics Dylan wrote, but never added music to?
That's right. There was a box of basically prose that had no chords or anything, there was just poetry that was probably lyrics on scraps of paper. So these artists got the chance to set not only chords and melody, but create brand new compositions from these lyrics.
Who found the lyrics, and where were they? Did Dylan actually give his blessing for you guys to use them?
All I know is that someone in the Dylan archive office found this box of lyrics as they were looking for the next Dylan "Bootleg" series materials, and Dylan gave his blessing for the artists to pretty much mix-and-match and do what they please with the lyrics, because he trusted T-Bone Burnett and he trusted the artists that were chosen.
Rhiannon, you say in the documentary that you didn't have a deep knowledge of Dylan and his work. So what convinced you to come on board with the project?
Well, anything T-Bone does is interesting and worthwhile. The idea of collaborating with the young Dylan was less interesting to me than the idea of collaborating with these other musicians — musicians that I didn't know very well, musicians coming from very different musical places than I was coming from. I thought that was a really intriguing opportunity of being able to collaborate with these people and being able to make some new music out of a pile of old papers, basically, and some old thoughts. I don't know if they were rejects or just lyrics that he never got around to finishing, but I thought that was a really intriguing idea.