Monday, November 08, 2010

Bob Dylan: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 9: The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964

Bob Dylan
The Bootleg Series, Vol. 9: The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964
Rating: 4.7/5.0
Label: Columbia

It's practically a tradition that each new Bob Dylan Bootleg Series release will be accompanied by complaints from Dylan freaks (sorry, "aficionados"). Though Dylan Fandom's response to The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964 has been largely positive, some predictable grousing about how some classic performances still haven't seen the official light of day and how Columbia over-emphasizes the musician's 1960's work at the expense of his later stuff has surfaced. A quick perusal of Dylan message boards - proceed with extreme caution - also reveals gripes about the release's sound quality, packaging and track order.

Such dissension is difficult to understand, though, as archival releases don't get any better than The Witmark Demos. They have neither the luster nor the mythology of Dylan and the Hawks 1966 or Rolling Thunder 1975/1976, but these demos document a key piece of the 1960's Dylan puzzle, finding the musician moving past his Guthrie-aping days yet still before the "thin, wild, mercury music" of his mid-1960s electric trilogy. In the tradition of Dylan boots the title here is only partly accurate, as this set contains demos for both the Leeds and Witmark publishing houses, a technicality of course and one that doesn't detract in the slightest from the brilliance of the record's songs. These recordings are immediate as we hear Dylan occasionally flub lines and offer various comments about these songs; some of them are mere fragments, but the majority are fully formed and sometimes contain alternate lyrics to what would eventually be included on record.

Though the demos include plenty of the socio-political songs usually associated with early Dylan - "Blowin' In the Wind," "Ballad of Hollis Brown," "Masters of War," "Oxford Town," "John Brown, " among many others - they nevertheless suggest that the accepted image of the young Dylan as primarily a topical songwriter isn't entirely accurate. Of course Dylan initially embraced, and unarguably advanced, this depiction, framing himself as a folkie devotee of both Guthrie and mysteriously nicknamed socially-righteous bluesmen that most people hadn't heard of; still, the demos are indicative of an artist whose lyrical scope already extended far beyond sometimes too-simplistic topical ballads. For example, the demos include all varieties of love songs; there are subtly dismissive ones like "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" and "Boots of Spanish Leather;" nostalgic, mournful ones like "Bob Dylan's Dream;" and occasionally tender ones like "Girl From the North Country" and "Tomorrow Is a Long Time." Humor and tragedy exist in equal measure; the acerbic bite of "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues" and the pure silliness of "I Shall Be Free" contrast with the personal dramas of "Seven Curses" and "Ballad For a Friend" as well as the global ones of "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," all in a manner that belies Dylan's young age at the time of these recordings.

Any serious Dylan fan will have heard some of these songs in various incarnations already, either via the debut 1991 Bootleg Series release or the plainly titled Witmark Years boot. Among such completists there may be a tendency to approach these demos from a too-academic perspective, whether it's in terms of Dylan's debt to archetypal American folk themes or his lyrical evolution; indeed, the poetic intricacies revealed in "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Mama, You Been On My Mind" are still striking. Such approaches are valid but unnecessary, as this newest Bootleg Series is simply fun to listen to and a perfect snapshot of a young artist with a pile of amazing songs to his name. With any artist whose volume of quality unreleased output surpasses his officially sanctioned material, it's impossible to satisfy everyone as the vaults are purged, but The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964 is an essential Bob Dylan release and every bit as captivating as much of his best work.

1 comment:


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Hi Eric,

On behalf of Columbia Records and Special Rider many thanks for plugging "The Bootleg Series Volume 9 — The Witmark Demos" on your site, the artists recently released album / reissues ... .. thanks, also, on behalf of the artist and label for not posting any pirate links this material and, if you / your readers would like good quality, non-pirated previews from Dylan’s upcoming releases, then full-length versions of "The Times They Are A–Changin” and "Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right" shall shortly be available for fans and bloggers to host / post / share etc from . Up-to-the-minute news on Dylan’s 2010 / 2011 shows and releases is, of course, also available on the official web-site and on and an increasing archive of exclusive film footage of Bob Dylan performances is also available for fans and YouTubers via the official channel at ... .. and keep an eye on these official sources for details of further Dylan news, preview material and on-line promotions.

Thanks again for your plug.