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The Rockologist: Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series Vol. 9 – The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964

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Like so many of the archival albums issued as part of Bob Dylan’s ongoing Bootleg Series, The Witmark Demos 1962 – 1964 isn’t something that’s going to appeal to everybody.

Indeed, for those casual, or even semi-devoted Dylan fans with that dog-eared copy of Blood On The Tracks or Highway 61 gathering dust in the closet, this may warrant just a single listen (if even that) at best.

On the other hand, for those looking to delve ever deeper into the early development and legend of the man who in just a few short years went from being simply another in a long line of Woody Guthrie wannabes, to the iconic “voice of a generation” back in those formative early sixties years, this is truly essential stuff.

Once again, be forewarned though.

This is a collection that truly separates the men from the boys when it comes to being any sort of serious, would-be Dylanologist.

Even if your own Bob collection draws from such disparate eras as Dylan’s early folkie days, his shocking jump from folk to rock in the mid-sixties, the late seventies “born again” years, or even his more recent, latter-day artistic rejuvenation with albums like Love & Theft and Modern Times — this still may not be for you.

Although the pristine quality of these restored recordings is pretty remarkable when both their age and somewhat dusty vintage are taken into account, listening to them in a single sitting often requires nothing less than the patience of Job. But after all, one Dylan fans joy is another ones pain, right?

Repeated listens are likewise going to be unlikely — at least, unless you count yourself among the sort of fanatics who pour over each line of Dylan’s songs as though you were deciphering Shakespeare. The good news here is that for those who fall into that latter category, this is definitely your kind of album. So, by all means, jump in with both feet. You’ll be diving overboard before you know it.

As with all of the other collections in Dylan’s Bootleg Series, the loving care taken in restoring these rare recordings and bringing them to market for mass consumption, appears to have been both painstaking and meticulous.

The 47 songs included here — demos a young and naked Dylan recorded for his earliest music publishers accompanied only by his acoustic guitar, harmonica and occasional piano — reveal an artist who, although certainly raw at the time, was clearly something special even then.

The stops and starts occasionally heard during these recordings — which are more like auditions never meant for public consumption anyway — clearly show that Dylan was a diamond in the rough not even halfway into his twenties. Dylan’s rapid and remarkable development as a songwriter is clearly evident in the embryonic two year period covered here, as is his uncanny gift for turning a vocal phrase.

On early versions of songs we all know and love like “Masters Of War,” “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “The Times They Are A Changin’,” you can hear some of the earliest examples of why Bob Dylan — all popular notions aside — is such a great singer. Yes, you heard me right. Because nobody, but nobody matches lyric to vocal delivery and bites off phrases for the sake of emphasis quite like Dylan does.

I could devote an entire article to this subject alone, and perhaps one day I will. In the meantime, the recordings on The Witmark Demos display this uncanny talent in its earliest stages to often quite stunning effect. Say, what you will about Dylan’s vocal range — and many have. But nobody outside of maybe Sinatra puts an exclamation point on a song lyric quite like him, and The Witmark Demos 1962 – 1964 offers convincing evidence it’s a gift that he had very early on.

In addition to early demos of familiar Dylan songs (“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna’-Fall”) and those which have become such a part of the American fabric that even non-fans will recognize them (“Blowin’ In The Wind”), The Witmark Demos also includes a number of previously unreleased (officially speaking, anyway) songs that display his amazing depth as a songwriter, even at such an early stage. These range from the righteous indignation shown in early protest songs like “The Death Of Emmett Till” to the more down-to-earth emotional sentiments of “Ballad For A Friend.”

About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    you make it sound very interesting but still think I am gonna take a pass

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Its definitely not for the faint hearted, but for the Dylan nut, its a gold mine.

  • http://neilyoungnews.thrasherswheat.org/ thrasher

    Thanks Glen. Nice review. Masters of War is still chilling 40+ years on….

  • Greg Barbrick

    Nice review Glen, although I am probably not a big enough Dylan fan to get it. He did some amazing stuff during those early “folkie” days though.

  • Daleg

    What can I say about a review that I consider to be so … “wrong?? Suggesting that this album is for Dyan fans who treat his lyrics as though they were written by Shakespeare is so strange and odd that it simple boggles the mind. These are 47 of the simplest and sweetest and most passionate songs that Bob Dylan has ever written and performed. To suggest to readers otherwise is extraordinary. I hope that readers of the review will see it as simply bogus and will either buy the album or find someone who has bought it and listen to it. It contains beautiful heart-felt songs from a man who has been giving us the gift of his music for almost 50 years. And to say that this album is only for hard-core Dylan fans is a disservice to those who decide, on the basis of the review, not to listen to the album. As far as I can tell Glen Boyd never sat down and just listened to the music. I encourage you to sit down and listen and enjoy. Thank you.

  • Frank55

    “the sort of fanatics who pour over each line of Dylan’s songs”

    or even PORE over them.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Writing about Dylan, you always run the risk of some fans not agreeing with you, and I fully expected that here. Like his music itself, Dylan fans come in a variety of shades. Some prefer folkie Dylan, some prefer electric Dylan, etc. This is actually what made “Im Not There” such a cool film…but I digress…

    Anyway, all I was trying to do here was point out that since Witmark focuses on “folkie Dylan” and the recordings are mainly rough demos (although of surprisingly very high quality), not everyone is going to “get it.” In that respect, Witmark is definitely more one for the hardcores.

    That said, I like the album a lot…but I think I already said that.

    -Glen

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    what on earth is that seizure-inducing video?

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Just something I found. Pretty crazy huh?

    -Glen