"They were just songs we had done for the publishing company," Bob Dylan once said of the music he recorded with The Band (some of it in his living room, some of it in their basement) over six months in 1967. Whatever else those sessions might have been -- an exploration of the bent history of American song; a way of recovering from injuries both psychic and physical sustained while speeding his way through the first seven years of the 1960s; a way to kill time as the grass grew in the Catskills -- The Basement Tapes were just that. Dylan was off the road for nearly eight years from May 1966 to January 1974; songs would have been his main source of income.
During much of that time, he struggled with his image and his songwriting. But not in 1967, when the songs were still rushing at him. In addition to the 140 tracks recently released on The Basement Tapes Complete: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 11 (66 of them then-new Dylan originals), and the wholly different set of bare-boned trickster parables he crafted for John Wesley Harding, there are these 18 lyrics on Lost on the River, boxed up and languishing in the Dylan archives for more than four decades until his music publisher stumbled upon them. Dylan turned them over to T Bone Burnett, who backed him on the 1975-76 Rolling Thunder Revue tour, to set to music. The impresario behind the 7.9 million-selling O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack recruited a multigenerational, multicultural cast that holed up for two weeks in Capitol Records' Studios A and B in Los Angeles. They finished 44 cuts, with multiple settings for each lyric, from which 20 were selected.