Review: Bob Dylan, “The Bootleg Series Volume 9: The Witmark Demos”
Artie Mogull of Music Publishers’ Holding Company believed he may have been among the first people in the music business to hear Bob Dylan sing “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Before his death in 2004, he recounted that he “flipped” upon hearing “How many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry?” It’s not hard to see why. To a melody adapted from the spiritual “No More Auction Block for Me,” Dylan succinctly, eloquently and powerfully gave lyrical voice to a generation of youth struggling with an ever-changing America. The social and cultural ramifications of Dylan’s emergence have been explored in detail elsewhere; the latest volume of his long-running Bootleg Series, ironically, concerns itself with Dylan’s commercial breakthrough as a songwriter. The Bootleg Series Volume 9: The Witmark Demos (Columbia/Legacy 88697 76179-2) looks at the brief period before Dylan up-ended the entire music biz by metaphorically blowing up Tin Pan Alley, a time when he attempted to fit into the established system and found himself recording demos first for Leeds Music, then M. Witmark and Sons. The demos on this two-disc set led to recordings by Judy Collins, the Staples Singers, Ian and Sylvia, Elvis Presley and perhaps most crucially, Peter, Paul and Mary. The Witmark Demos chronicles the heady time when the diminutive Robert Zimmerman from Hibbing, Minnesota truly became Bob Dylan, and as such, is a must-own for anyone with a passing interest in the sound of American popular music at the crossroads.
The 47 songs on The Witmark Demos represent, in one sense, Dylan demystified. Here’s the artist who made it possible for any kid with a guitar to become a star, hawking his wares as a jobbing songwriter. Despite the title of the set, the first eight recordings were actually made in January 1962 for Leeds Music when Dylan was 21; when he signed with Witmark, both he and his management were apparently unaware that music publishing was exclusive! The Leeds contract was bought out, and the rest is history.
Over the course of these songs, Dylan goes from pure folk to hints of the sneering rock-and-roller that awaited ‘round the corner. His compositions include talking blues, so-called protest songs (Dylan never felt comfortable with that appellation), humorous riffs, morality plays and true-life tales. Despite the embryonic state of these recordings, much of Dylan’s unique delivery and sly humor is already in place. Even if the tracks here scratch the surface of where Dylan would eventually wind up, the songs are a varied lot, musically. This may have been startling in 1962-1964, when his songs began to attract a wide variety of cover artists. One particularly amusing artifact reprinted in the extensive booklet is a newspaper article entitled “Bob Dylan (23) Write Songs Stars Like”, and this article name-checks Bobby Darin, Marlene Dietrich and Peter, Paul and Mary among them. Today, this diversity is less surprising, given that the once-reclusive Dylan has opened up somewhat more. We now know that he was indeed a student of many genres of music, whether Woody Guthrie’s folk, Harold Arlen’s smoky Broadway ballads, or Bobby Vee’s rockabilly. All of these disparate influences informed the young songwriter.
Read more about The Witmark Demos after the jump!
It’s fascinating to hear the fly-on-the-wall chatter which humanizes the now-legend; there’s an informal air to these demo recordings. An impatient Dylan interrupts himself with frequency, correcting himself on “Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues” or deciding not to continue with “Man on the Street” or “Ballad for a Friend.” That important early demo of “Blowin’ in the Wind” actually finds Dylan coughing mid-song, while he calls “Let Me Die in My Footsteps” “a drag” and “awful long” before abandoning it. Perhaps never again was Dylan captured so candidly.
All told, only four of the recordings have officially appeared elsewhere: “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” on The Bootleg Series Volume 7, and a trio on Volumes 1-3: “Walkin’ Down the Line,” “When the Ship Comes In” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” Of most interest to collectors may be the 15 tracks not released on any Dylan studio album. Among these is “Tomorrow is a Long Time,” familiarized by cover versions and later released by Dylan in a live version, while bootlegs exist of a version attempted for New Morning. Some other songs of note receiving their first official airing are “Poor Boy Blues,” “Hero Blues” (attempted again for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan) and “Gypsy Lou.” Most excitingly, a number of the tracks have never been bootlegged, and the collection appears to be a complete one of the Leeds and Witmark demo recordings.
As is the norm for the Bootleg Series volumes, the package is a handsome one. Colin Escott provides an informative essay, although the lack of recording dates for each track is a glaring omission. Track-by-track notes would also have been welcome, as they could have shed light on when and if Dylan revisited the songs in question. (Dylanologists may find themselves grabbing for reference books while listening to connect the dots!) Producers Jeff Rosen and Steve Berkowitz provide a short note about the sources used; due to the varying sound quality, listeners may find themselves adjusting their volume knobs with some frequency, but Rosen, Berkowitz and mastering engineers Mark Wilder and Maria Triana have truly presented these tracks in the best quality yet.
It’s difficult to imagine these songs not being as part of the fabric of our culture, but this is the closest we can come to hearing them as if for the first time. Just as Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” hit stores as a single, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan was released in May 1963 and Dylan was on his way. “Blowin’” had already been recorded by the time Dylan signed the Witmark contract and began recording the bulk of tracks here. The final track on this set is an early “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which would spawn the entire “folk rock” movement in the electrified hands of the Byrds. On these tracks, the young singer sounds confident but human; if Dylan between 21 and 23 hadn’t seen yet a lot, he swaggered as if he had, retaining youthful innocence but with a prescient, almost otherworldly world-weariness. He had the “rock” spirit even if the overall sound was still “folk.”
In his review of Dylan’s The Best of the Original Mono Recordings for our friends at MusicTAP, our very own Mike Duquette eloquently points out that the single-disc distillation of the eight-disc box set isn’t the best, or most accessible, starting point for listeners looking to discover Dylan. But for a serious, historically-minded attempt at just that, you couldn’t do better than The Witmark Demos. Take one listen to this, and you’ll hear Dylan as music business insiders first did, nearly fifty years ago. Of course, that prospective listener should follow these early recordings up with the albums, chronologically, and hear the sound of Americana gently alter, until it all explodes with the searing electricity of Bringing It All Back Home. With the first notes of “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” the young man heard on The Witmark Demos had unleashed a revolution in song. No single-disc or double-disc distillation of the man’s career could possibly capture that seismic shift. (2007’s simply-titled Dylan is probably the best single-disc career-spanning compilation for the artist and unlike these new projects, is aimed squarely at the newbie audience. It, itself, is excerpted from a three-disc box of the same name.)
A footnote for more deep-pocketed buyers or collectors seeking further introduction to early Dylan: the eight-album/nine-disc The Original Mono Recordings box set may not be as shocking a listen as that of the Beatles’ similar box last year; I found the mono/stereo differences more subtle with Dylan’s oeuvre. But if you can find the box set for around $80 (or $10/album), as I did, it may be the best one-stop shopping on Dylan’s 1960s material. As expected, the electric albums are punchier with the AM mono vibe, while the early guitar-harmonica-and-voice recordings are more authentic when heard through one speaker only. These mono discs may not replace my SACD editions (though not every title in the box received an SACD), but they’re the best-sounding and most comprehensive editions currently available, and the box set contains album-by-album liner notes (by noted historian Greil Marcus), which none of the individual reissues do. If you’re looking to put Dylan’s first eight albums in historical context and pick them up in one fell swoop, The Original Mono Recordings fits the bill in compact yet lavish style.