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.

Bob Dylan.

When I was 17, I drove a neighborhood girl to school. Her parents wrote the check, but she paid the price: I was a Dylan fan with a bootleg source. My driving companion had to endure fragments from recording sessions, chipper '60s talk shows, and concerts taped from the cheap seats. On the last, you had to crank the volume up really high to hear Dylan's voice. When the person making the tape screamed, the speakers almost blew. I explained why it was all so important. She checked her seatbelt.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

One of my old tapes has just been released as The Witmark Demos: Bootleg Series Vol. 9, so-named for the publishing company, M. Witmark & Sons, where Dylan recorded. It's true, some of the songs are interrupted: Dylan forgets the words at times or stops to correct a line he's rewritten. In one song, his guitar is out of tune. In another, it sounds like the tape got caught in the machine. There's coughing, doors slamming, someone laughing.

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The Witmark sessions contain these blemishes, because they were never meant for public consumption—Dylan was singing so that his tunes could be translated into sheet music, which other artists, like Peter, Paul and Mary, could then sing. "Do you want this? It's awful long," he asks near the end of "Let Me Die in My Footsteps." "It's not that it's long, it's that it's a drag. I sang it so many times." But despite the nonexistent production values and occasionally half-hearted performances, the Witmark Demos are fascinating documents. The 47 songs in the collection capture Dylan's first burst of creativity, from 1962 to 1964. Since then, Dylan has changed, nearly died, been reborn, gone electric, gone Christian, and gone back to his roots. But this recording captures him before all of that has happened, at age 22, eager, in a hurry, and alone in a tiny room on 51st Street in Manhattan. There are secret songs that would never be published and storytelling of a kind he later abandoned. We get to sit in on the sessions where his songwriting evolved, as he takes on the subjects of love, death, and war first from one angle and then another. And some of the songs are beautiful.

Dylan was vulnerable and in love at the time, which is where the most beautiful songs come from. In 1962, Dylan's girlfriend Suze Rotolo—she's the one on the cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan—left to study in Europe. He responded with "Tomorrow Is a Long Time," a song of abject longing that would be covered by everyone from Elvis to Judy Collins (who reportedly cried the first time she heard it). Dylan wouldn't put it on an album until 1971, either because it was too personal, too sappy, or both. The version on The Witmark Demos lets us hear him play it while the feelings are still fresh.

Dylan adds complexity to the Rotolo love story in "Boots of Spanish Leather." Have you ever confessed your love and gotten a yawn in return? Written poems you later found wedged in the window to keep out the cold? He captures this moment. The narrator pours out his feelings to his departing girlfriend, who responds by offering to buy him a gift on her trip. (My girlfriend went to Spain, and all I got are these lousy boots.) He talks about the stars, and the diamonds from the deepest ocean. He's counting the days. She says don't wait up: "I don't know when I'll be comin' back again/ It depends on how I'm a-feelin'. " The published version, on The Times They Are A-Changin ', is brighter than this one, which is deliberate down to the final slow strum.

Listen to "Boots of Spanish Leather" from The Witmark Demos

The third response to Rotolo comes in "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright." Here Dylan offers a counterpunch. He writes off his lover completely. She's wasted his time, so he won't even waste words on her: "Goodbye is too good a word, babe, so I'll just say fare thee well." But is he really over her? "It's a statement that maybe you can say to make yourself feel better," Dylan would later say of the title. "It's as if you were talking to yourself." (Dylan returns to this theme of self-deception throughout his career in songs like "If You See Her, Say Hello" and "Most of the Time.")

This "Don't Think Twice" is not equal to the published version on The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, and it's not really even all that interesting as an alternative take. That's true of several of the better-known songs on The Witmark Demos, like "Girl From the North Country" and "Blowin' in the Wind." It might have made sense to keep the Greatest Hits songs off of this collection, so we could focus on the material that's new or different in a significant way. Then again, if Sony had gone that route, they'd have had to take out the version of "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" here. Next to all these other songs, it feels like a visit from Dylan's future. The tumbling images—the black branch with blood that kept dripping, the alleys, the gutters—and the energy of the writing is more like the Dylan of 1965-66 than everything that surrounds it.

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