It seems appropriate at this point to take a brief diversion from Bob Dylan: The Complete Album Collection Vol. One to close out Dylan’s “folk” years by looking at the remainder of his studio recordings from this era. The Bootleg Series Volume 9: The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964 collects together demos recorded by Dylan for the publishing companies Leeds Music and M. Witmark & Sons. Although over two-thirds of the tracks on this release were subsequently re-recorded and released by Dylan in the 1960s, there are fifteen tracks that until the release of this album in 2010 had only been available as bootlegs.
The album gathers together 8 tracks recorded at Leeds in 1962 and 39 tracks that Bob Dylan recorded in the small studio at Witmark’s New York offices between 1962 and 1964. The tracks were put down essentially to capture the basics of each song for publishing purposes and to provide a guide copy for selling the songs to other artists to cover. Because of this, the recordings were made as cheaply as possible, with the tracks recorded on reel to reel at about half the rate of standard studio recordings. A studio employee would then transcribe the words and music from these recordings to send out to recording studios.
The chronological structure of the album provides an excellent overview of Bob Dylan’s incredible development as a songwriter in the space of just two years. Starting with a handful of songs recorded a few weeks after the release of his debut album, the album progresses through rough versions of songs to be re-recorded on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and The Times They Are-A Changin’ ending with a couple of tracks that missed the cut of Another Side Of Bob Dylan (most notably “Mr. Tambourine Man”). The album is filled with mumbled introductions, coughs and songs being stopped to correct lyrics. However, the laid back nature of these recordings further gives the feeling of an artist finding his feet.
The big selling point for this collection is the fifteen previously unreleased demos recorded in this period. My favourite tracks amongst these tend to be the more humorous ones… Well, the humorous and sort of romantic “All Over You” (“Well, if I had to do it all over again/Babe, I’d do it all over you”) and the humorous, angry and political “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” (“Now we all agree with Hitler’s views/Although he killed six million Jews/It don’t matter too much that he was a Fascist/At least you can’t say he was a Communist!/That’s to say like if you got a cold you take a shot of malaria”).
Although the best previously unreleased track is probably the acerbic “Long Ago, Far Away”, a bitter and brilliantly concise song built around the axiom of “the more things change, the more things stay the same”. Each verse opens with a scene of violence or injustice (“One man had much money/One man had not enough to eat/One man lived just like a king/The other man begged on the street”) before closing with the refrain “Long ago, far away/Those kind of things don’t happen/ No more, nowadays”. Certainly not subtle, but very affecting.
Of the songs that Bob Dylan was to re-record, there are two particular highlights for me. The demo version of “Ballad Of Hollis Brown” is a revelation. The lo-fi recording of the track provides an authenticity that the more “polished” studio version from The Times They Are A-Changin’ can’t match. Starting with the spoken introduction “This is “The Rise And Fall Of Hollis Brown”, a true story…”, the rough echo filled recording sounds like a lost blues track from the Depression era that could have been recorded on the same equipment Robert Johnson used. This soundscape gives a raw emotional weight to the song, adding new power to lyrics such as “You looked for work and money/And you walked a ragged mile/You looked for work and money/And you walked a ragged mile/Your children are so hungry/That they don’t know how to smile”. As far as I’m concerned, all of this makes this the definitive version of “The Ballad Of Hollis Brown” and worth the price of admission alone.
The other fascinating alternate version The Bootleg Series Volume 9: The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964 provides is “Mr. Tambourine Man”. A muffled recording featuring only piano and vocals, this version of one of Bob Dylan’s most recognisable tracks is quite an insight into the evolution of a song. The Byrds released their version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” prior to Dylan’s recording on Bringing It All Back Home, quite likely using this raw version as their basis. Going by the chronological and musical progression of the three versions, there’s a sense that the version by The Byrds may have had more than a little influence on the way that Dylan was to later record the same song.
The Bootleg Series Volume 9: The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964 is certainly not an essential Bob Dylan album, but it does supply some fascinating insights into not only Dylan, but the process of music publishing in the early 1960s. By their very nature Bob Dylan’s four folk albums from this period are pretty basic recordings, however, the lo-fi versions of a number of these tracks offer the listener something new. This compilation also provides us with fifteen previously unreleased original Bob Dylan tracks from this period and that can only be a good thing.
Favourite Track: “Ballad Of Hollis Brown”
Favourite Cover Version: The Byrds – “Mr. Tambourine Man”
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