Bob Dylan’s The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964 (The Bootleg Series Vol. 9) is a two-disc compilation of forty-seven demos recorded for the publishing company M. Witmark & Sons. Forty-three of these recordings have never seen an official release until now (four were previously available on earlier volumes of The Bootleg Series). Fifteen songs on this collection were not revisited by Dylan for future studio recordings. This generous set of music, approximately two and a half hours long, traces Dylan’s early development as a songwriter.
The lengthy new essay by Colin Escott included with this release does a fascinating job of putting these recordings into context. Dylan recorded the demos for Witmark so the publishing company could use them as a tool to persuade other performers to record them.
Under contract to Witmark he churned out dozens of songs in only a couple of years, many of which were covered to great success. “Blowin’ In the Wind” was the breakthrough, most notably a hit for Peter, Paul & Mary, and its demo is included here. Because of their original purpose, little care was put into the actual recording of these songs. It’s a wonder they even still exist.
While the audio quality varies from track to track, everything here is very listenable. All of the performances are Dylan solo, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and occasionally piano. Most interesting is the piano version of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” a highlight of disc two. The performances are littered with coughs, flubs, and off the cuff asides. “Masters Of War” begins with some guitar tuning, yet remains out of tune.
All of this only adds to the “fly on the wall” vibe of the collection. “Bound To Lose, Bound To Win” is unfinished, with Dylan stating, “I can write you out the verses to this later, I can’t really remember right now.” During some songs, he stops midway to correct himself after getting lyrics wrong. “I Shall Be Free” ends abruptly with Dylan admitting, “That’s about all I can remember without the notebook.”
The demos are presented chronologically in the order recorded, which helps guide the listener through the growing sophistication and originality of Dylan’s songwriting. Of course, it isn’t far into disc one that the classics begin to emerge. “Blowin’ In the Wind,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” and “Ballad of Hollis Brown” all show up early, the latter being introduced as “The Rise and Fall of Hollis Brown.” Many of these performances, despite their function as demos, are intensely focused. “John Brown,” a relatively obscure song about a wounded soldier returning home, is among them. “Quit Your Low Down Ways” is at least as good as the outtake found on the initial Bootleg Series release.
Casual fans would do well to obtain all of Dylan’s early studio albums prior to delving into this set. That said, I wouldn’t say The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964 (The Bootleg Series Vol. 9) is for completists only. Despite the sometimes rough sound quality, these demos paint a very effective portrait of the young Bob Dylan. The Bootleg Series began nearly twenty years ago, with the 1991 release of Volumes 1-3. With such a consistently interesting and artistically justified series, one can only hope there are more treasures yet to emerge.