The Bootleg Series Vol. 9 – The Witmark Demos 1962-1964
REVIEW BY: Sean McCarthy
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/10/2011
The Bootleg Series continues to yield some great rewards in Bob Dylan's catalog. In 1998, Dylan's famous Royal Albert Hall concert was released as a two-disc set. Since then, the series has captured Dylan at such key times as when he was at the cusp of going electric, as the leader of the incessant, hedonistic Rolling Thunder Revue, and during his late-period triumphs. It only makes sense that the next stage to document would be the beginning.
The Witmark Demos were recorded a year after Bob Dylan recorded his debut album for Columbia Records. The sessions were recorded while Dylan was signed to two record publishing companies, Leeds Music Publishing and M. Witmark & Sons. The two year stint captures a feverishly prolific recording period for Dylan. No sooner then he penned a song, artists like Odetta, Elvis Presley and Peter, Paul and Mary released their own interpretations of Dylan's soon-to-be immortalized classics.
The liner notes, written by Colin Escott, address the seismic shift in music that Dylan helped create during this time. But Escott's analysis wisely avoids aping what scores of writers have already documented about Dylan's songs. Instead, he focuses on how Dylan changed how an artist operated. Instead of having a solo songwriter release an album of songs written by as many as a dozen songwriters, Dylan represented artists who wrote their own material, and thus owned at least part of the royalties (if no underhanded record company tactics were implemented) when artists covered the singer's original works.
One of the greatest pleasures of The Witmark Demos is the relative unencumbered structure of Dylan's songs. For the most part, it's just him and an acoustic guitar. His vocal pitch, which would rise slightly in subsequent albums, is fairly monotone and almost conversational in songs like "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" and "Gypsy Lou."
With Dylan just 23 years old at the time, the story narrative in many of these first demos is nothing short of amazing. "The Death of Emmett Till" is laid out with the dramatic pacing of a novel. His wry, humorist, bordering-on-absurdist humor is displayed on the songs like "Talking John Birch Paranoid Blues" and "I Shall Be Free." Dylan's songwriting structure would only grow tighter on albums like Highway 61 Revisited and Bringing It All Back Home, but on The Witmark Demos, there is an appealing lack of polish that elicits comparisons to old country and blues albums of the '30s and '40s.
Out of the 47 songs on The Witmark Demos, a good majority have already been released in previous bootleg releases (see The Bootleg Series Vol 1-3). But The Witmark Demos is a great, concise snapshot of an artist who was just realizing how much of an impact he could have on popular music. Yes, it's another Dylan collection. But until The Bootleg Series releases a period of Dylan's work not worth revisiting, releases like The Witmark Demos will remain an essential purchase for even casual fans.