Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Bob Dylan: The Witmark Demos

OK, you know how it is. A new album or CD comes out by your favorite artist and you wonder, "Is it something I need to buy? Is this valuable and up to snuff? Necessary for my collection?"

The album I am specifically talking about is Volume 9 in The Bootleg Series, Bob Dylan's The Witmark Demos. The answer is, yes. If you are a Dylan fan it qualifies as a "must have" CD.

I picked it up last Friday with a Father's Day gift card from my son (thank you, son) and have been listening to it every day since. Like its predecessor it is rich with material that the Dylan aficionado will want to hear over and over again, till all nuances have been extracted and appreciated.

The Witmark Demos are a 2-CD collection of 47 songs recorded by a very young Dylan from 1962-64 during that time when he was fresh with the first flush of fame, yet still a vurtual unknown. There is no accompaniment beyond his guitar, harmonica, and occasional piano. The recordings were made for his first two publishers -- Leeds Music and M. Witmark and Sons -- before striking his deal with John Hammond (who brought Billy Holiday and many other greats to the big stage) of Columbia Records. Hammond's career was legendary, and in signing Dylan he saved the best for last.

When you listen to the level of sophistication in these songs, one has to be amazed that they were all written before he was 24. The 47 songs include early versions of classics like “Blowin’ In The Wind", “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and “Masters Of War” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” But we also have so much other material rooted in the traditional folk ballad territory. And some of these songs have never been heard before, released for the first time nearly five decades later.

Another feature of the set is booklet with liner notes and rare photos from that time period. This kind of material is usually just for die-hards, but my recommendation is that you take time to read through to get the background on Witmark and the times.

I know that not everyone is appreciates Dylan's music to the same degree, but love him or hate him, he has been an influential force for the past half century since arriving on the scene. Did Buddy Holly's torch light Bob Dylan's at the Armory here in Duluth way back when? Did Woody Guthrie's torch light the tinderbox in Dylan's heart during those many visits during Guthrie's last days?

The material in The Witmark Demos shows variety, breadth, depth, and a sensitivity far beyond the routine. I'd be curious what the recording studio folk thought with each new offering. "Hey kid, you got something there. What else ya got in your bag?"

Time magazine called Dylan one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. He's won Grammys, Oscars and Golden Globe awards for his music and (as if it matters what Rolling Stone thinks) is ranked No. 2 on it list of greatest artists of all time. (You'll have to guess here whether it's Elvis or Beatles who rank numero uno.)

All this to say The Witmark Demos has value on many levels and ranks as an important addition to your collection. It is not just some unpublished material someone scraped together to steal more change out of our pockets. And that is the real point. If you're a fan, you owe it to yourself...


jumprightin said...

A correction or two:
1. Dylan actually signed with John Hammond shortly before recording the earliest Witmark material. Hammond referred Dylan to the publisher. See Dylan's Chronicles, vol. 1 for details.
2. Hammond signed Bruce Springsteen and Steve Ray Vaughan well after signing Dylan.

ENNYMAN said...

Thanks for jumping right in. :-)
Yes, I am sure it is not the first time I have jumbled a few facts. And yes, I did know that about Springsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughn, but for some reason when I wrote it, I think I was regurgitating something about how Hammond's career was in a different place than it used to be. I dunno... Thanks for keeping this spot on.
Great CD though.

jumprightin said...

Great CD, yes, I agree completely. Most of the same material has been out on bootleg cds in fine quality for several years. I'm so glad it was on the list for official release.
Since you've gone back to '60s Dylan, don't miss Brandeis and at least a couple of the mono releases available now. I found that they, too, are a revelation.