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.

Advertisement

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.

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.

Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Dec. 19 2014 4:15 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? Staff writer Lily Hay Newman shares what stories intrigued her at the magazine this week.