The label’s reasoning was simple: by releasing this material (albeit in 100 CD-R copies worldwide) they keep the copyright on it, thereby keeping it out of the public domain and preventing any label that wanted to from distributing it. (Which could happen, considering how many gray-area collections of Dylan music from 1961 have cropped up lately.) While that keeps any other label from making money off of the material, the reality of this century means that The 50th Anniversary Collection has inevitably turned up on file-sharing sites, making the album free of charge to anyone with an Internet connection and the time to download it all.
So has Sony (and by extension, the venerable artist on their roster) screwed themselves? Hard to say. They seem to have no problem giving it away, which would appear to be preferable to another company profiting from it. The mind reels at the potential of annual CD-R sets chronicling Dylan’s studio work, released accordingly to stay a step ahead of copyright laws. Much of the material has already been floating around on bootlegs, and limiting the set to complete performances, excluding the dozens of false starts that counted as takes and fading others, will doubtless inspire debate.
And that’s the main point: is it worth hearing? That depends on your personal level of scholarliness. As with The Witmark Demos, we get a pile of songs that were contenders for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan—but that also underscores why these takes were deemed sub-par in the first place. To wit: do you really want to hear four takes of “Sally Gal”? Can either stab at “Baby, I’m In The Mood For You” surpass the hilarious one already on Biograph? What made the released take of “Blowin’ In The Wind” such a keeper? Do the seven gallops through “Mixed-Up Confusion” prove he wasn’t ready to Rock?
That said, there are some surprises for less diehard Dylanologists. “Corrina, Corrina” appears in early, solo takes, then again with the experiment of a full band. “Rocks And Gravel” has an acoustic take similar to the one from the Gaslight, then is heard again with a band. “Bob Dylan’s Blues” has different lyrics but appears twice with the same apparently scripted intro (previously used to set up “Talkin’ New York”); the variations within “I Shall Be Free” are more pleasing. “Ballad Of Hollis Brown” shows up in earlier, edgier versions. His songwriting had yet to develop, so he relies on blues covers to fill time. “(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle” shows off his Hank Williams yodel. “Baby Please Don’t Go” isn’t too different from the arrangement most R&B combos used. Robert Johnson is a surprising influence, from the liberal quotes in “Going Down To New Orleans” to the surprising renditions of “Milkcow’s Calf Blues” (one on piano). “That’s All Right Mama” is indeed the Arthur Crudup song popularized by Elvis Presley, played four times with piano and what sounds like a banjo.
The aural quality of the live performances varies—the Carnegie Hall Hootenanny performance sounds like it was recorded from the back row—but it’s still amazing to hear the first-ever performance of “Blowin’ In The Wind” before it gained a third verse. We didn’t need two tracks devoted to him not being able to play “Muleskinner Blues”, and this isn’t the most riveting performance of “Black Cross” in the oeuvre. Depending on the venue, the audiences are either rapt or rowdy, but all show his prowess on the guitar.
For those of us who enjoy such things, these takes help provide an interesting glimpse at the evolution of the songs, the Freewheelin’ album and the man himself. And for that, in a phrase all too common round these parts, they’re essential for collectors, and not for the casual fan.
Bob Dylan The 50th Anniversary Collection (2012)—3