Monday, February 7, 2011

Bob Dylan 51: The Witmark Demos

Perhaps not to follow any release pattern except to accompany the box set of the mono versions of his albums, the next Bootleg Series came from a specific yet fruitful early period in Bob’s career. Recorded largely as publishing demos to ensure proper royalty payments, The Witmark Demos presents a variety of Dylan originals played simply to get them copyrighted. And since he was coming out with new material faster than he could put them on his albums, this enabled other singers—fellow folkies, mostly—to borrow an otherwise unknown Dylan composition for their own releases.
With the exception of the handful of tracks that had appeared on previous Bootleg Series volumes, these are not merely carbon copies of songs on his albums. Words change and arrangements are simpler, to the point where they could be considered alternate takes. He throws in the occasional aside and isn’t careful about precise tuning, as these are performances, not sessions, and certainly up until the last 1964 recordings, were merely “official” versions of the latest additions to his coffeehouse setlists.
Obviously not everything was recorded for the express purpose of having people cover them. A song like “I Shall Be Free” (different from the version heard on Freewheelin’) was most likely laid down so that no other basket-passer could take the song and make it his or her own. (Bob knew all too well how easy it was to appropriate somebody else’s song.) “Boots Of Spanish Leather” shows how close he was to its inspiration, and “Girl From The North Country”, which immediately follows, demonstrates how he was able to dilute his true feelings into two different songs based on the same borrowed melody.
Many of these tracks had indeed snuck out as bootlegs over the years, so it’s nice to have some of them placed in the canon within context. But alternate takes of familiar songs aren’t enough to guarantee sales, so the inclusion of fifteen songs making their first official debut makes The Witmark Demos even more exciting. A few of these fall into the “protest” category, but it’s always interesting to hear “Tomorrow Is A Long Time” and “I’ll Keep It With Mine”, two songs that were never really captured in the studio to the composer’s taste. (Or maybe he was too close to them.) Even “Baby Let Me Follow You Down”, which he didn’t write, had evolved from its original recording to include new verses. One song that stands out is “Gypsy Lou”, simply because it’s the type of thing he’d already left behind. It could be that by recording it, he was hoping for some of that publishing bling. Which only confirms what people have said all along: he’s a pretty smart guy.

Bob Dylan The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964—The Bootleg Series Vol. 9 (2010)—

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