BOB DYLAN - THE WITMARK DEMOS: 1962 - 1964
Listening through this two-disc collection, it dawned on me I should have much more sympathy for the pure folkies of 1965 who viciously complained when Dylan went electric. Sure, they might not have liked the volume, and given the rudimentary P.A. systems of the day, they probably had good reason. But Dylan's move had just as much to do with a seismic shift in his songwriting. He'd also recently given up writing about events and currrent affairs, in essence turning his back on the position the folk community had thrust apon him. In a couple of brief years, he had eclipsed the entire scene, writing songs of such power and impact that it was obvious he was a voice of a generation, a century. He'd moved from being a self-mythologizing Woody Guthrie copyist to a prolific composer of the highest quality, able to condemn the greatest of 20th century wrongs with unarguable logic and brilliant poetry. Greed, racism, murder, conservatism, paranoia, if there was a topic to skewer, he could do it with humour or horror, his very words one of the great strengths of the 60's movement. Plus, he could write blues, country and traditional folk with ease, almost at rote, while most others struggled in his wake, now desperate to follow Dylan, since he had changed the game.
So let's forgive Pete Seeger's anger at Newport, the booers at British and American concerts, and instead focus on this latest addition of the ongoing Bootleg Series, which collects all known songwriting demos Dylan recorded for his first pair of music publishers. Over 27 recordings, we hear him go from mimicking Guthrie's rural accent and borrowing old folk melodies, to the transcendant shift to Beat-fuelled imagery on Mr. Tambourine Man. Along the way, seemingly out of the blue came these remarkable songs, as if Dylan had followed Robert Johnson to the crossroads and made the same deal with the devil. Seriously, as much fun as Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues is, with its humour slightly obscuring the true message of the song, which is simply to chastise greedy businessmen, there is no hint that this callow youth would soon write Blowin' In The Wind and A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall. If that wasn't enough, the bittersweet love song Tomorrow Is A Long Time came next. Then he boldly tackled the racism, segregation and violence of the day with The Death Of Emmett Till.
Demos of the day weren't as sophisticated a process as now. Tape and time was more valuable, and Dylan was simply doing one take of each, for the lucrative songwriting market. If he made a mistake, he'd stop and repeat the line correctly, or add the right words at the end. This was so his publisher could pitch the song to others. Witmark did a fabulous job of this, with Joan Baez, Ian and Sylvia, Peter, Paul and Mary, The Byrds, Sonny and Cher, and so many others making all parties involved good money. Quality didn't matter much for these performances, as they were never to be aired or released, and some of them have either decayed with time or were of limited fidelity in the first place. But the strength of Dylan's commitment to the material and passion in the performance more than makes up for it. These were often the first run-through's of these songs, Dylan itching to get his latest piece of brilliance recorded for posterity.