Out of all of the songs recorded for The Basement Tapes, “Million Dollar Bash” has the best cast of characters:
Dylan includes the following figures: the big dumb blonde, Turtle, my counselor, Silly Nelly, and Jones. The occasion for naming all of these people is a “million dollar bash.” Where’s the location of this party? Who is the host? Is it literally a “million dollar bash” in that the party is being put on by a Gatsby-type? Or is it simply an ironic statement: “There they go with another one of their ‘million dollar’ bashes.” None of these questions are answered by the narrator. It’s all about the people in a presumably small town and the preparations for the million dollar bash. Whatever happens, you gotta be there!
The small town feel is underlined in Dylan’s line reading of: “I took my potatoes / Down to be mashed.” He pronounces the word as “po-tay-toes” which could have been done to fit the meter of the line, or as a way to adopt a kind of country drawl. Many years after the recording and release of the song, viewers of the movie adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series heard the faithful character of Sam pronounce the word the same way:
The song even has a chorus, such as it is. The Band’s Richard Manuel joins Dylan to sing the simple “Ooh, baby, ooh-ee” twice before Dylan repeats the title phrase again, each time singing with a lot of tenderness. It’s a charming and funny song about a funny small town with a lot of charm. Robbie Robertson — a member of The Band and one of Dylan’s co-conspirators in producing The Basement Tapes — was quoted by Cameron Crowe in his liner notes for the Biograph box set as saying about The Basement Tapes:
“The songs were mostly done in humor. They were either outrageous or comical.”
Put “Million Dollar Bash” in the comical category. Looking back in 1978, Dylan described The Basement Tapes project the following way, as quoted in Clinton Heylin’s Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited:
“At that time [in 1967] psychedelic rock was overtaking the universe and so we were singing these homespun ballads…They said it was ahead of its time, but actually it was behind its time.”
“Homespun ballad” is a good description of “Million Dollar Bash.” With this song and other Basement Tapes songs, Dylan is connecting to the feel of a deeper tradition that is bigger than the folk music community of Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax, and the Anthology of American Folk Music. Because The Basement Tapes were recorded in the Hudson Valley area of New York state, the songs have a geographical association with the so-called “burned-over district” of New York, representing the various rise of spiritual movements during the Second Great Awakening of the 19th century. A number of religious sects and cults came into being in that time and place, including the Mormons, Millerites, Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Shakers as well as the rise of spiritualism with the Lily Dale community and the Fox Sisters. The idea of the “homespun ballads” of The Basement Tapes aligns well with the Shakers, who, according to Wikipedia, practiced “a celibate and communal utopian lifestyle, pacifism, uniform charismatic worship, and their model of equality of the sexes, which they institutionalized in their society in the 1780s.” As an outgrowth of their practices, the Shakers were known for their architecture, furniture, and music, all of which have resonated longer than their religious belief. The care with which they designed and built their furniture was “an act of prayer.” Similarly, the music of the Shakers was integral to their faith:
“The Shakers composed thousands of songs, and also created many dances; both were an important part of the Shaker worship services. In Shaker society, a spiritual ‘gift’ could also be a musical revelation, and they considered it important to record musical inspirations as they occurred…The tunes and scales recall the folksongs of the British Isles, but since the music was written down and carefully preserved, it is ‘art’ music of a special kind rather than folklore.”
In addition to detailing the music of the Shakers, with a few edits, this quotation could be a description of The Basement Tapes. Here’s one example of a Shaker song:
The enduring influence of the Shakers’ folk traditions and the mystery embedded in The Basement Tapes as a whole is well represented in R.E.M.’s song “Maps and Legends” from their 1985 album Fables of the Reconstruction:
Maps help locate us in an unknown territory. Legends are traditional stories that are sometimes taken for historical truths. Maps and legends are the tools that we use to try to understand where we are and what we come from; to explain the unexplainable. But how do we account for secrets, puzzles, and magic? What happens when we find meaning in automatic writing, when inscrutable words are suddenly glowing with resonance? As Michael Stipe sings in the first verse of “Maps and Legends”: “And he sees what you can’t see, can’t you see that?” This is a description of a visionary or a seer, but also serves as a metaphor for an artist as well. Someone who engages with the unknown through artistic expression as Stipe alludes to in these lines:
Point to the legend, point to the east
Point to the yellow, red, and green.
We all have certain customs that we take as truths, but, as the chorus suggests: “Maybe these maps and legends / Have been misunderstood.” The tools that we use to make sense of the senseless can be flawed, yet it’s the openness of interpretation in which we find the beauty of the homespun ballad and The Basement Tapes. Dylan said the following about folk music in a 1966 Playboy interview, the year before he recorded The Basement Tapes:
“Traditional music is based on hexagrams. It comes about from legends, Bibles, plagues, and it revolves around vegetables and death. There’s nobody that’s going to kill traditional music. All these songs about roses growing out of people’s brains and lovers who are really geese and swans that turn into angels – they’re not going to die. It’s all those paranoid people who think that someone’s going to come and take away their toilet paper – they’re going to die. Songs like ‘Which Side Are You On?’ and ‘I Love You, Porgy’ – they’re not folk-music songs; they’re political songs. They’re already dead. Obviously, death is not very universally accepted. I mean, you’d think that the traditional-music people could gather from their songs that mystery – just plain simple mystery – is a fact, a traditional fact.”
There it is; mystery as traditional fact is Dylan’s thesis for folk music. This quotation is Dylan’s attempt to describe the allure of folk music and explain how people are missing that point. He struggles to put those feelings into words; his frustration is palpable. This is a case of Dylan — to paraphrase Stipe’s words in “Maps and Legends” — seeing what we can’t see. Though we don’t know if Dylan ever heard “Maps and Legends,” the chorus of the song could fit into his description of traditional music: “Maybe these maps and legends / Have been misunderstood.” Dylan is drawn to the mystery implicit in folk music as well as how that mystery has been misinterpreted. He confronts the mystery and it inspires him to create his own art, to construct his own maps and legends. Similarly, the religious sects of the Second Great Awakening struggled with their own individual visions of faith and tried various forms of expressions to bring semblance, understanding, and order to the mystery of God. The intention of a group such as the Shakers was to form their own community, and, out of communal practices, establish their own maps and legends to celebrate the mystery of God. Their music — described above as a gift or an offering — is just one example of these customs.
Dylan creates his own community in “Million Dollar Bash,” one that is far in practice from the celibate Shakers. In fact, the Shakers would most certainly reject most bashes, especially a million dollar one. Even though it is a comic song, it retains that sense of mystery essential in traditional folk music:
Ev’rybody from right now
To over there and back
The louder they come
The harder they crack
Come now, sweet cream
Don’t forget to flash
We’re all gonna meet
At that million dollar bash.
The featured photo is by Mike Vago showing a map that we created with our friend Tom Bruss depicting our childhood neighborhood. The map has since been touched by flood waters, but it retains its power.