Shifting the Center of American Music from Bob Dylan to Beyoncé Knowles

In Depth
Shifting the Center of American Music from Bob Dylan to Beyoncé Knowles

There are those who say that the lore of the modern rock and roll archive starts here, deep in the rustic outer country of upstate New York, in a house affectionately nicknamed Big Pink because of its gaudy, pastel siding. Here in West Saugerties, New York in 1967, Bob Dylan and the Toronto outfit once known as the Hawks and now simply as “the Band” are down in the basement singing songs about Bessie Smith and ye “old, weird America,” as Greil Marcus famously puts it. Here in this place and in the same year that Rolling Stone magazine would be born and set into play a kind of self-congratulatory music criticism that haunts our present-day taste-making institutions and Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born dreams, here in the same year that King would deliver his “Beyond Vietnam” speech condemning American empire and exposing its inextricable ties to racial and class terror, the same year that over 150 communities of the working poor, the urban and distressed, from Newark to Detroit and beyond would light up in rebellion—in the run of that roiling epoch, a band of brothers (one with indigenous roots, another with a notoriously fabulist past) laid down tracks that stoked the mythologies associated with rock history and the fetishistic, deep wonk ways that certain kinds of cultural histories get rendered as “precious,” get dubbed as worthy of “preservation,” while other forms are left to seemingly fade away.

Image:Harvard University Press

The “Basement Tapes,” as they came to be known, were recorded that year in relative isolation and under the cover of Dylan’s storied convalescence in the wake of a nasty motorcycle accident in 1966. They were mischief-making jam sessions featuring one-offs, breakdowns, wistful ballads, whiskey-soaked supplications, and roughshod odes to the open road. They were tavern blues and campfire tales, “casual recordings . . . more than one hundred performances of commonplace or original songs.” They were documents of young white men (or “white-seeming” men in the case of guitarist Robbie Robertson) who were armed with, among other things, Dylan’s trademark esoteric lyrics (albeit a bit leaner here), his always-elsewhere, punctum vocals, which he shared with Robertson and Rick Danko (who takes lead on the song “Bessie Smith”), and the insistent warmth and elegiac tenor of Garth Hudson’s Hammond organ and accordion work.

Fourteen songs pressed into permanence on an acetate disc and passed around—first to fellow musicians and then bootlegged all across the rock and roll universe by 1970. Their major-label release in 1975 was cause for celebration among the critics and fans who longed for the chance to further archive the rehearsals and experimentations of that sacred rock bard, forever shrouded in mystique, forever the iconic ideal, forever the romantic embodiment of all that is putatively authentic and organic in popular music culture—in spite of the fact that he himself reveled in the talents of his own endless mythmaking.

What The Basement Tapes held out to Dylanites, however, was the assurance of pure and unadulterated art, resistant to commerce, pounded out on the ground floor of a house rental in upstate New York. This was a music-making “laboratory,” as Marcus refers to it, “where, for a few months, certain bedrock strains of American cultural language,” he argues, “were retrieved and reinvented.” Yes, there were those naysayers who called out the slacker tendencies of a collective that appeared to pay little (or not enough) mind to their own—“This Wheel’s on Fire”—American present (“these were deserters’ songs,” cries one critic in 1990s hindsight), but to those haters Marcus would famously offer an extended treatise on the prodigious value of the tapes in the ways that they document “an unimaginable speech, an undocumented country,” an “invisible republic,” “music made to kill time that end up dissolving it.” As is the case with all of his signature work, he is transfixed by a song’s ability to encapsulate a constellation of rhizomatic historical moments, to condense the most romantic elements of American history—“the Puritan’s dares” and folkloric outlaws’ death wishes—and transduce them into present-day articulations of longing and suffering, adventuresome pleasure and playfulness. If these tunes sound familiar, uncanny, maybe even a bit clichéd with their country twang and frontier saloon sadness, they do so purposefully, according to him, in order to convey larger truths about the human condition. They are songs that stage scenes of “Comedy and Tragedy sitting down for a long bout of arm-wrestling with a drunken mob cheering them on,” as he puts it.

Black feminists—musicians, critics, and fans—are repeatedly on the sidelines of the sidelines watching all of this go down. There’s no shade that I’m throwing here, only the simple and yet thoroughly underacknowledged fact that in the big, hallowed intellectual histories of popular music culture and the practices of collecting, memorializing, and assigning value to sonic art, Black women are rarely in control of their own archives, rarely seen as skilled critics or archivists, all too rarely beheld as makers of rare sounds deemed deserving of excavation and long study. In the world of the Tapes, even Bessie Smith, the blues empress whose legend has spawned generations of poetry, theater, dance, visual art, and book-length explorations and tributes, makes a cameo in the service of the Band and Dylan’s typically solipsistic pilgrimage toward the talismanic powers of a long-lost “friend” who, as the lyrics go, shared with them “the good times and the bad.” Back in those days, we’re told, our protagonists “didn’t worry about a thing.” They wonder whether it was “her sweet love or the way she could sing.” Tapes collectors and critics tend to spend little time with this song other than to squabble over sound quality and the question of whether this track—with its noticeable studio polish—even belongs in the “Big Pink” sessions. As Yoncé Knowles might say (channeling Karen O and calling out to Bessie), “They don’t love you like I love you.”

It is for me, therefore, a perhaps quixotic exercise, a compelling riddle in the legend of the Tapes, to imagine otherwise, to envision a world in which sisters not only make glorious, pathbreaking sounds but also listen to, love, collect, think about, write about, and find ways of preserving and passing forward their sounds. This is the kind of labor that might capture the attention of our cultural imaginaries such that we might more fully grasp the vastness of the “invisible republics” that they’ve built for us, that constitute our modern sonic lives. Along these lines, then, this study has been an exercise in calling attention to this phenomenon of Black feminist sonic archiving and taking seriously the critical practices of musicians and critics whose work as such was often chiasmic. It has been a call to spend more time with these artists who are spending time with the archive.

We hear them all in the basement, and here again we might heed Marcus’s words: “Where the past is, in the basement recordings, in the mood of any given performance, is the question to ask the music and the question the music asks. This question raises the frame of reference that each performance passes through as if it were a door. In the chronology remade in the Catskills in 1967, the basement was an omphalos and the days spent within it a point around which the American past and future slowly turned.” The omphalos, the hub, the focal point of Black feminist sound, these sites of Black feminist archiving demand more legible and cared-for cartographies so that we might better hear and grasp the magnitude of this dazzling and gripping work about Black women’s pleasure and joy, suffering as well as survival as it flows forth from their own laboratories where cultural memory and future possibility intersect and yield new meaning.

Way down low. That’s where we’re ultimately heading before coming up for air. The implication is such because of the spiraling architecture, the slow- rolling, vertiginous crawl of the camera that hugs walls and creeps around corners. Just a hint of the string-tinged, echoing trace of our reigning pop empress’s self-defense Ole Opry anthem lingers in this cavernous space. Fading vocals whisper to us that threats abound, that trouble lurks here.

Blink and you’ll miss it, but the transition—from wide-open, out-on-the- range horse-riding and Afrocowboy socials to the stark, cold enclosures of a cement fortress parking structure—is one of the most pivotal moments in Yoncé Knowles’s 2016 Black feminist magnum opus, Lemonade, her New Orleans reclamation manifesto, a work that, as the vast majority of pop fans good and well know now, has been tilled many times over with passion and mostly with great care by everyone from that obsessive fan “hive” to critics and scholars across the globe. (I would place my money on a hunch that it is arguably now the most “reviewed” album of all time if we count the hundreds of blog posts and think pieces that flourished on social media alongside formal press outlet analyses in the weeks and months following Lemonade’s premiere on HBO on April 23, 2016—and I most certainly would do just that.)

The majority of pundits have zeroed in on how much place matters in this epic work and the extent to which the Crescent City emerges as a key character—from the quotidian grandeur of marching bands strutting down the streets of the Algiers neighborhood to the shots of Lake Pontchartrain’s lush splendor, the sun-kissed sands of Fontainebleau State Park, and the ludic energy of Bourbon Street.

This insistence on reckoning with the location, location, location that matters in Lemonade is for sure built out of the grist of woman-of-color critical thought and study emerging over the past decade and a half—most notably in the work of scholars like Katherine McKittrick and Mary Pat Brady, both of whom illuminate the ways that aesthetics are the tools by which the historically marginalized might reoccupy, redesign, and reframe sites of wounding and catastrophe, gross neglect, and forgotten and undervalued loopholes of retreat. McKittrick has, for instance, influentially shown us how Edouard Glissant’s “poetics of landscape allow black women to critique the boundaries of transatlantic slavery, rewrite national narratives, respatialize feminism, and develop new pathways across traditional geographic arrangements; they also offer,” she adds, “several reconceptualizations of space and place, positioning black women as geographic subjects who provide spatial clues as to how more humanly workable geographies might be imagined.” And before her it was Chicana feminist scholar Mary Pat Brady, who made the contention that we should take seriously how “the imbrication of the temporal within the spatial . . . illustrates” that, in spite of the long colonial-neoliberal project’s “seemingly successful abstraction of space,” in spite of a long systemic game to convert people’s land into “geometric homogeneities” and a “quantitative” set of ideas from that of vibrant human dwelling, in spite of the tenacity of capitalist expansion and state surveillance, there are nonetheless “alternative conceptions” of the spatial that challenge “oppressive” alignments of power and instead privilege revolutionary socialities.

This is the undergirding philosophy of Lemonade, that Black women activists—Mothers of the Movement and culture workers, musicians and dancers, athletes and actors, legendary chefs and Mardi Gras masqueraders—might reinhabit the ruins of our spurned history, might reclaim the earth and overrun the wilderness with our wildly sensual and sumptuous, celebratory selves and ultimately birth a new time and restorative, new collectivities. The journey to get to there, though, requires roaming fields, bursting through floods, levitating on slick, firewall roads, walking through flames, and plunging to new depths, to the bottom of oceans of despair, beneath shipwrecks that left bodies in the wake.

Even before we hit rock bottom in the parking lot with her, Our Lady Knowles is on a subterranean expedition in Lemonade, one that is loaded with counterhistorical meaning, taking us to the place where buried New World truths lie. Her plunge reminds us of Glissant’s wisdom yet again, how he calls out to us to heed the bottom of the sea, the sedimentary layers of traumas submerged. Early on we see her falling into a deep-blue netherworld, her house that is not a home now capsized.

Her resurrection yields waves of operatic wrath in multiple pop registers, giving context and meaning to the forgotten sisters, the phantoms made flesh once more and here to walk and sit among us until we might reckon with their beings, incorporate their pasts into our ontological present. She is our sonic archivist, the one who banana dances to the beat of Josephine; the one who does it “Proud Mary” style like electric Tina; the one who drops the stank funk like Betty in a spy movie send-up; the one who gives good glam as Supreme Lady D; the one who is our ride-or-die chic Etta at Chess Records. She is someone who’s long been interested in staging scenarios (pace Diana Taylor) and engineering the mechanics of Joe Roachian surrogation to yoke her own ambitions and aesthetic lifeworlds with those of her predecessors.

This Lemonade joint, though, takes the scale of her vision to vaster territories— up, out, and beyond her own performed effigy—to focus instead on a beloved city, an entire territory, a region as the locus of our Black diasporic dreams as well as our chronic New World sorrows, the capital of our twinned economy of grief and obstinate reinvention. Beyoncé’s lyrical fable offers to us a Lemonade subterranean that is the repository of all that has been discarded yet remains with us at the very core of our everyday lives. It is the site of the basement tapes of a Blackness born out of the fact of history’s racial and gender and class brutalities. It is a work that releases the pent-up energy of Black folks’ misbegotten value—that which is stored up in the sediment of our culture—and sends it back into the atmosphere.

Excerpted from LINER NOTES FOR THE REVOLUTION: THE INTELLECTUAL LIFE OF BLACK FEMINIST SOUND by DAPHNE A. BROOKS, published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2021 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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