[18 October 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
In all his various iterations—from folk troubadour to sunglass-clad, plugged-in contrarian to born-again Christian rocker to bluesy, plainspoken elder statesman—Bob Dylan’s artistic persona has always come across as one of clear vision. There’s no waffling in the moment, no tiny cracks of indecision or reticence. Bob Dylan picks his path—often blazing it for others to follow behind—and he doesn’t look back.
The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964, however, show us a new side to Dylan. They show us the Dylan who is just starting out, frantically writing songs, but still feeling for his own ground. At times, he’s as in command as ever, and in others, he feels a little green still, a little untested. Part of this comes from the fact that Dylan was a gamble for Columbia Records. Most of the Greenwich Village folk crowd ended up on smaller labels, like Folkways, and targeted smaller crowds. Dylan, though, was getting coverage in the Times as early as 1961, and John Hammond over at Columbia took a flier on him.
Hammond’s flier, shared by Lou Levy at Leeds Music, the music publishing company Dylan first dealt with, yielded a humble first return with Dylan’s 1962 eponymous debut. The record, according to music historian Colin Escott (who provides fascinating liner notes here), sold only 2,500 copies, and Dylan became known as “Hammond’s Folly”. From there, Art Mogull, who worked for the company that owned M. Witmark and Sons—one of the oldest music publishers in the country—bought out Dylan’s contract, Al Grossman took over as Dylan’s manager, and Dylan the folk wunderkind began to take shape.
These two discs give us 47 tracks, all recorded before Dylan turned 24. The prolific nature of the collection is a wonder on its own, but it also shows us a more complete glimpse of Dylan’s growth than his early albums, as he moved out of Woody Guthrie’s shadow and stood in the sun to cast his own. Many of these early tracks show numbers Dylan wrote for others. In his early days, he was very much a part of the songwriting and publishing world, penning songs like “Tomorrow is a Long Time” to be recorded by Judy Collins, and (of course) “Blowin’ in the Wind”, which was first made famous by Peter, Paul & Mary and later recorded by just about everyone. Dylan was making a name for himself as a songwriter, no doubt, but this fury of writing and demos is a document of his push to become known as a singer, too.
You can hear him growing into himself over the course of these songs. In some takes, he’ll stop and start songs or even forget lines, which seems unheard of for the ever-verbose Dylan. “I Shall Be Free”, later a hilarious aside on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, just cuts off when he forgets a verse. Other songs, like “Man on the Street” and “Let Me Die in My Footsteps” stall in a similar way. Throughout the demos, you can hear Dylan occasionally explaining himself, or yielding to another person in the room or coughing nervously in the middle of a track. It’s these small bumps that remind us how young Dylan was, and it’s a curiously uncertain picture that starts to take shape. His debut album was mostly covers, so while it announced his striking singing voice, it didn’t bring out the same confidence of 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Listening to this set, though, it’s clear that the strength of that record comes from carefully picking and refining the best demos. With all these songs hitting us at once, here we find Dylan, the raw talent, the young man moving in any and all directions trying to find his own way.
We know he does, of course, and we see the flashes of brilliance here that reveal how Dylan, even if an uncertain kid at 24, was still wise and talented beyond his years. This take of “Blowin’ the Wind” is weathered and weary, belying his young age more than most of the other demos. “The Death of Emmett Till”, a long-unreleased track, has a biting anger that makes it stand out here. Among all these songs, even other similarly topical ones, “The Death of Emmett Till” is an early sign of something uniquely Dylan, darker and more confrontational than the rest of the bunch. “Ballad for a Friend”, another stand-out unreleased track, shows a subtler, softer side of Dylan, his nasal bleat worn down to a fragile creak that works beautifully.
There are 15 previously unreleased tracks here—“The Death of Emmett Till”, “Ballad for a Friend”, and “Guess I’m Doing Fine” are the highlights of the bunch—but it’s really the breadth of this whole set that makes it worthwhile. It may seem like a collection for Dylan completists, but even the songs we know well tell a big part of the story here. With its wordy length, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” sticks out among the more traditional folk tunes and shows how quickly Dylan grew as a writer and singer. You can hear him building steam on “Boots of Spanish Leather” and “Girl From the North Country”, but perhaps the most revealing, and compellingly odd inclusion is this version of “Mr. Tambourine Man”. Lyrically, it’s the most forward-thinking song here—even though plenty of the songs on The Witmark Demos are scattered over his first five albums. What’s more fascinating, though, is the performance. It’s a murky piano take, one whose sound is as stubborn and singular as anything we’ll hear from Dylan from 1965 on. He sounds like he’s taking his time, wholly comfortable in the studio, unlikely to qualify or explain himself to anyone. “I’m ready for-to fade, into my own parade”, he sings, and he’s half right. Because he will lead a parade of followers, but damned if he ever faded into anything.
Like Volume 8 in the Bootleg Series, Tell Tale Signs, which gave us a new context for Dylan’s recent output, The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964 give us a new frame for his genesis. We see him trying on the old folk tropes, making them his own, and then breaking down their constricting structures. Even as we see him cut songs off, and offer explanation, and stumble through some talkin’ blues numbers—which would become a staple of his early work—we also see a young man come into his own, and by the end, we have a feel for where that first, troubadour phase of the protean myth that is Bob Dylan came from. If D.A. Pennebaker’s film Don’t Look Back showed us the darker side of Dylan struggling to be the artist he wants to be, even after he found his way, this set shows the more promising struggle of a man who doesn’t know yet if his art will hit home with others, but he keeps writing and singing, constantly, until it at least hits home with himself. From there, well, we know what happens.