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Bob Dylan & The Band’s Basement Tapes version of Johnny Cash’s ‘Belshazzar’

November 5, 2014

Yesterday, Bob Dylan released a 6-CD box set called The Bootleg Series Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete, featuring extensive rehearsal and demonstration recordings of The Band backing him up circa late 1967 inside their rented house ‘Big Pink’ in West Saugerties, upstate New York. This is an historic moment for Dylan fans, who have been chasing various actual bootlegs for decades (ever since some of the original recordings were issued by fans on poor-quality white-label vinyl pressings in 1969) to obtain this material. Finally, it has been officially released in its entirety, to rapturous response from Dylanites.

I’m more of a casual Dylan fan, myself (even though I’ve already seen him in concert three times over the past ten years, and will be going to see him again in about a week’s time), and I’ve found myself buying only a few of these big-ticket box sets by other artists. But as I perused the track-listing, and noticed that on the first disc was a cover of Johnny Cash’s song “Belshazzar”, I got excited. This is one of my favourite early Cash songs, a great retelling of the Biblical myth from which the idiom “writing on the wall” derives.

Take a listen:

This is my personal restoration of the song, taking the false start from the beginning (which was recorded a whole tone higher in musical pitch compared to the rest of the song) and pitching it a semitone lower, stitched along with the rest of the song pitched a semitone higher, so that the complete song exists in one key. This is an old trick, famously used by George Martin to assemble The Beatles’ recording of “Strawberry Fields Forever” in 1966. So had Dylan wanted to, he could have issued this very same tape, using contemporary technology to create a master.

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