Bob Dylan's 'Witmark Demos' showcases his early days in the studio

BEFORE THE 'BOOTLEG SERIES': A young Bob Dylan performs in 1964 at Philharmonic Hall in New York.
BEFORE THE 'BOOTLEG SERIES': A young Bob Dylan performs in 1964 at Philharmonic Hall in New York. (Daniel Kramer/associated Press)
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By Allison Stewart
Sunday, October 17, 2010

Back in the early 1960s, when Bob Dylan was a Greenwich Village folk singer with one underwhelming album to his credit, he began recording rough versions of several dozen songs for music publishing companies Leeds Music and M. Witmark & Sons. They were demos in the truest sense of the word, put to tape in the hope that other singers would hear them and want to record their own versions. Today, they form the basis of the 47-track, two-disc "The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964," the ninth volume in Dylan's long-running "Bootleg Series."

Most of the songs selected for other versions of the "Bootleg Series" aren't bootlegs at all, but a hodgepodge assortment of live tracks, soundtrack cuts and outtakes selected for their historical significance and relevance to the Dylan canon. "The Witmark Demos" aren't bootlegs either, but rough studio cuts that form part of a mini-Dylanpalooza, which includes a mammoth box set with mono versions of his first eight LPs also being released on Tuesday.

"Witmark" won't add much to anyone's fundamental understanding of early classics like "Blowin' in the Wind," since many of the demos sound little changed from later "official" versions, but they offer a fascinating glimpse into Dylan's early capacity for self-mythologizing. Dylan's wholesale appropriation of blues and folk traditions, what historian Sean Wilentz in his new, excellent "Bob Dylan in America" calls "the magpie quality that is the essence of Dylan's modern minstrelsy," was then in its early bloom. "Witmark" finds him trying on and discarding various accents (he sounds positively Appalachian on the slight "Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues") and poses -- the raconteur, the righteous observer -- as if they were suits.

Not yet 24 in the most recent of these recordings, he already sounds mindful of posterity. At their starkest, these tracks bear witness to Dylan deciding who he wanted to be, a process he would later find easier to conceal.

"Witmark" is packed with so many familiar songs -- "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," "Masters of War," "The Times They Are A-Changin' " -- it sounds like a greatest hits album in embryo, though there are some excellent obscurities, too ("Guess I'm Doing Fine"). Most tracks just feature harmonicas and guitars, though there's a rickety, piano-centered "Mr. Tambourine Man."

The sound quality ranges from pretty awful to sort of awful: Some tracks sound crisp, others suggest Dylan was singing from inside a closet (which he pretty much was; the Witmark studio was tiny). Throughout, he sounds predictably weathered, or at least like a young person trying to sound weathered, part of it may be a pose, part of it simply the peculiarities inherent in that voice, a voice that, as Wilentz put it, was not "especially raspy or grating, just plain."

The discs' assemblers leave in the lyrical miscues, the moments where Dylan stops short, or tells someone (himself?) that no, that last part wasn't right at all. It's meant to be honest and charming, and it is, though it's futile, too -- one of innumerable attempts to de-mythify Dylan that has the opposite effect: Even his fumbles, his ordinary moments, seem exotic. Like so much of what would come after, these songs obscure as much as they illuminate.

Stewart is a freelance writer.

Recommended tracks:

"A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall,"

"The Death of Emmett Till,"

"Guess I'm Doing Fine"

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