How Bob Dylan & The Band kickstarted Americana

It’s ironic, really.
A motorcycle, one of the cultural symbols of Americana, helped kickstart the music of the movement we all love when Bob Dylan came off his Triumph Tiger 100 on the back streets of Woodstock in 1966.
The familiar tale tells of Dylan – exhausted following twelve months that included the releases of ‘Bringing It All Back Home’ ‘Highway 61 Revisited and ‘Blonde On Blonde’ – coming off his bike, recovering from injuries at home and starting to record music with his friends and neighbours in their basement up the road. Those friends? They were The Band.

Except they weren’t… not yet, anyway. Guitarist Robbie Robertson, drummer and singer Levon Helm, bass player and singer Rick Danko, organist Garth Hudson and piano player and singer Richard Manuel had been on the road playing music for over a decade. First, they lived and breathed what we now call Americana, touring the taverns of the ‘chitlin circuit’ with rockabilly pioneer Ronnie Hawkins, before leaving ‘The Hawk’ to help Dylan go electric on his catalytic world tours of 1965 and 1966. The controversial noise made before, during and after those tours left Dylan and his musicians reeling and they retreated to Woodstock and its surrounding areas, well known for welcoming artists wishing to get it together in the country for over a century.

Once Dylan was recovered from his accident, he got itchy fingers and decided to invite his friends over to play music in ‘The Red Room’ of his house in Byrdcliff. It was in this room, arguably, that the alt-country movement that eventually mutated into the ‘Best Americana’ category at the Grammys was born.
Music, clothes, lifestyle… attitudes; you name it, the music and lyrics to the devout spirituals, broadside ballads, country & western laments and bawdy blues that Dylan and (what would become) The Band ‘recorded’ in the living room would change everything that followed in music.

“The way we played in Bob’s room and our basement at Big Pink developed a whole new persona,” said de-facto band leader Robertson. “The music had subtleties and a kind of timeless spirit.”
What does that statement put you in mind of? Brand Americana arrived and these great musicians were bottling it. Popular music around this time was full of incense, white rabbits and ruffled orchestras; Motown had gone psychedelic and even country music had embraced the Moog synthesizer. The days of rural radio stations and garage rock had gone and state-of-the-art studios were in… but Dylan and The Band were about to bring it all back home. Of course, years later, the likes of Led Zeppelin would disappear into the Welsh hills to record in a Bron-Yr-Aur cottage, the Stones would rent and kit out a villa in France to make an album and ‘lo-fi’ would become another word for cool… but, before all that, Dylan and The Band were pioneers.
“’The Basement Tapes’ album refers to the basement we recorded in at Big Pink,” said Robertson. “But it also refers to a process, a homemade process.” DIY, in other words. Roots, in another. The big bang for Americana music? It’s hard to argue with such thinking, especially as before these seminal recordings, songs by artists such as Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Bobby Charles, The Carter Family, Pete Seeger and Fats Domino would have been categorised as country, blues, jazz, folk or just plain and divisive ‘race music’. Once Dylan and The Band recorded and released these long-lost laments, though, the passion and belief flowing through the music – something you couldn’t touch, but you could hear – meant people couldn’t ignore or box such stylings.

Since then, artists we hold close to our hearts here at Black Deer – Kris Kristofferson, Wilco, Robert Plant, Iron & Wine, Courtney Marie Andrews, The Secret Sisters, Yola, Fantastic Negrito, Wade Bowen, Jerron Blind Boy Paxton and many more – have found themselves a home where previously there might not have been one. Bob Dylan and The Band were just playing music in a house, but it might as well have been a church.
A broad one called Americana.