Bootleg Series 9: The Witmark Demos

A trip to Florida suspended blogging for most of this past week, but I continued to listen to Bob Dylan all the way through. Specifically, to the Bootleg Series v9: The Witmark Demos. This is a two-CD set that compiles 47 songs recorded by Dylan as demos for copyright reasons from 1962 to 1964. I previously wrote about many of the pieces on this set during the early weeks of this blog, but this was the first time I had listened to it all the way through as a distinct two and a half hour album. Also, if you ordered this through Amazon you got a bonus disc of Dylan’s 1963 concert at Brandeis University. I don’t think I wrote about this back in January.
As with other recent examples of the Bootleg Series, this release has me feeling nostalgic. The Brandeis show has only seven songs and is more an interesting curiosity at this point than a major release. It is interesting that Dylan does only one of his “big” songs (“Masters of War”) across his two sets. I like that they have left in the stage announcements about the intermission, and that the announcer calls him “Bobby Dylan”. He does three “Talkin’” songs during his performance, which is about three too many for me. He also apparently drops his guitar once. Happy to have this but it is not essential.
The Witmark Demos are a different matter entirely. I’ve long had a lot of this material on the Zimmerman: Ten of Swords bootleg, and about four of these songs have been released on earlier editions of the Bootleg Series. The sound is cleaned up here, and this is far better than the earlier versions that I have (that said, a few songs, like “I’ll Keep It With Mine” seem to have been beyond audio repair). It’s mostly a very good set, with Dylan playing guitar and piano and demo’ing these songs. On a few (“Blowin’ in the Wind”) he clearly has a cold and struggles not to cough. I’m not sure that many or even any of these are superior to the album versions, but they’re generally interesting in themselves.
When I listened to this the first couple of times through I thought it was just fascinating to listen in on a very young Dylan recording. They’ve left in a lot of banter – he calls some songs “a drag” and forgets the lyrics to others (offering to write them down later). You can hear a door slam at one point. It seems all pretty casual – just getting down to work.
Last night, driving home from the airport, though, I was struck with the realization that if Bob Dylan had never written anything after 1964 – if he’d never gone electric, and done all of the things that I’ve spent the year writing about – he would still be a pretty monumental figure in American music. Certainly not as monumental, but right up there. Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, if not such a prominent early inductee.
I think that this occurred to me while listening to “Guess I’m Feeling Fine”, a very minor Dylan song that I really enjoy. He sings it in a kind of John Hartford style that I can appreciate. If he’d never written anything past that would he have eventually put that on an album? And would he be touring and still singing that today on the nostalgia scene? Quite likely. My parents, who winter in Sarasota, told me about seeing Paul Anka a year or two ago and how great they thought his show was. Anka was huge from 1958 to about 1963 (suffered during the British Invasion) and though he’s had many, many comebacks, never really “came back” in a truly important way. But he sells out the performing arts centre in Sarasota doing crooner revivalism. This is the career that might have awaited Dylan – playing to aging folkies in retirement communities across the sunbelt.
If Dylan had never written anything after 1964, he still could have filled out at least one more remarkable album. Throw all of this onto one album and try to tell me it wouldn’t be considered an all-time classic:
Tomorrow is a Long Time
Let Me Die in My Footsteps
Oxford Town
Guess I’m Doing Fine
Mama You Been On My Mind
Paths of Victory
Seven Curses
Walkin’ Down the Line
A couple of these are songs that Dylan used, including “Tomorrow is a Long Time”, which he went back to for Greatest Hits v2. “Paths of Victory” seems to me an overlooked civil rights anthem. It’s a very simplistic song (but so is “Blowin’ in the Wind”) and it could have been bigger than it was. “Farewell” has gotten a lot of recent attention due to the Coen Brothers and Llewyn Davis. “Let Me Die in My Footsteps” was recorded by dozens of artists. This could have been Dylan’s fifth – and last – album and he’d still be a star. Instead most of these songs are relatively forgotten (though “Mama You Been On My Mind” got a lot of work during Rolling Thunder as a duet with Joan Baez).
Given the occasionally huge gaps between Dylan recordings now, it is amazing to note how much great material he was able to generate and then disregard as a young man. Bootleg Series v9 covers just about a year and a half and 47 songs. That’s not even noting that “Blowin’ in the Wind”, “The Times They Are a-Changin’”, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”, “Girl From the North Country”, and “Mr. Tambourine Man” are also on here. Even if he had stopped, he’d still be one of the greatest of all time.

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