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Bob Dylan The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964 (The Bootleg Series Vol. 9) Review

Compilation. Released 2010.  

BBC Review

Any listener will be bowled over by the best of the new material.

Sean Egan 2010

In July 1962, Bob Dylan – four months after releasing his unremarkable first album – was signed by prestigious music publishing company M. Witmark & Sons. Over the three-year term of his contract, he transformed himself from covers-dependent naïf to the conscience of a generation and the poet laureate of popular music.

The songs he was providing Witmark via demonstration tapes have long circulated among collectors. This latest double-CD instalment of Dylan’s archive Bootleg Series is their first official release, one that rounds up his demos for Leeds Music of adjacent vintage into the bargain. Fifteen of the songs are compositions Dylan has never released in any form before.

While Dylan fanatics will welcome the set, the question is: will it do anything for those whose experience of Dylan is limited to a couple of albums or a compilation? The answer is probably not. As with all demos, these recordings were not intended for public consumption but for registration of copyright and/or for the purpose of persuading other artists to record covers. As such, they have little of the production polish or emotional commitment of formal product. Dylan coughs regularly. On one track a door can be heard closing. On another, Dylan brings proceedings to an abrupt close because, he explains to the engineer, he’s bored with the song.

Perversely, as well as the anoraks the album will probably be suitable for those new to Dylan, who – unfamiliar with the famous versions – can accept at face value slightly ersatz renditions of classics like Blowin’ in the Wind, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, Masters of War and Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right. Any listener, though, will be bowled over by the best of the new material. Though some of the discards deserved that status, The Death of Emmett Till is a stunning, harrowing song about a black youth murdered for whistling at a white woman that was inexplicably left off Dylan’s debut in favour of public domain numbers of far less currency; All Over You is filthy and hilarious; the valedictory Farewell is a melancholic gem. Additionally, the first released studio version of ballad Tomorrow Is a Long Time is exquisite.

Though The Witmark Demos’ contents may occasionally be unkempt, the same cannot be said for its trappings. As with all Dylan Bootleg Series releases, it is beautifully and thoughtfully packaged and annotated.

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