The Witmark Demos, Bob Dylan's latest collection of rare recordings, is one for the archeologists.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
Oct. 27 2010 3:14 PM

Every Grain of Sand

Dylan's latest collection of rare recordings is one for the archeologists.

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In the period when the Witmark Demos were recorded, Dylan was racing to get to that future. He was restless, always typing or scribbling. The songs are in different styles—blues, ragtime, folk ballads, broadsides, and Guthrie knock-offs. He pines for the past as much as his girl in songs like "Bob Dylan's Dream" and "Ballad for a Friend." But right next to these sit-at-home-and-drink-Beaujolais songs are randy come-ons like "All Over You" and I've-got-no-time-to-stay roaming songs like "Farewell" and "Rambling Gambling Willie."

Dylan is playing every booth at the music festival here. An omniscient narrator sings "Man on the Street," a short tale about a mysterious death. In "Standing on the Highway," the narrator sounds like he'll later be found in the street himself and made the subject of a Bob Dylan song: "Nobody seem to know me/ Everybody pass me by." "Only a Hobo" offers a nearly identical story, but sung more than a year later than those other two, he changes the role of the narrator and the tone is slightly more political. Because the titles on this collection are listed in the order in which Dylan recorded them, we get some sense of his progression. We also see that as fast as he's moving, he's still working over and rethinking the same themes.


Listen to "Man on the Street" from The Witmark Demos

Dylan's biggest "protest" album, The Times They Are A-Changin', came out in 1964 and includes many songs in this collection. "Hero Blues,""John Brown," and "Masters of War" show that same experimentation with perspective on the topic of heroism and war. "Ballad of Hollis Brown," which he calls "Rise and Fall of Hollis Brown," contains verses he ultimately left out. The best unpublished protest songs in this collection are "Long Ago, Far Away" and "The Death of Emmett Till." But my favorite topical songs on The Witmark Demos are the comic ones—"Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues" and "I Shall Be Free"—which are one-half Groucho Marx, one-half Jon Stewart, and one-half remedial math. They sound like tossed-off numbers, but when you hear Dylan stop more than once to correct a line in "Bear Mountain," you're reminded that the song's breeziness is totally thought through.

Listen to "Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues" from The Witmark Demos

There are no hidden gems in this collection of the caliber of "Blind Willie McTell," from Bootleg Vol.3. The version of "Keep It With Mine," a wonderful discovery from the 1985 Biograph, is mangled here. Witmark Demos is not a collection for the new fan, or even the emerging one. Buy the original albums and the first six bootleg volumes for better versions. Then come back to this rich collection, as I did, to be reminded that by the end of this period, Dylan would already be moving away from protest songs. Suze was gone, and Joan Baez was in. In 1965, he would go electric. Maybe it's fitting that I was often in a car listening to these songs from the days when he was in such perpetual motion, when his fame was beginning but he hadn't yet arrived.

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