Friday, October 15, 2010

Classic Dylan, for the first time.

Five days from now, on October 19, Columbia Records will release a "Bootleg Series" two CD set of early Bob Dylan recordings, The Witmark Demos 1962-1964. The set's title comes from these having been "demo" recordings Dylan made during the first two years of his recording career, mostly for the publisher Witmark Music, but a few of the earliest for another house. These recordings were not made for publication, but rather for the publisher to play for other recording artists who migiht be interested in covering them. Consequently, Dylan's approach to them is relaxed. Most of these songs were also recorded by Dylan for publication, and included on his early albums, from Bob Dylan (1962; follow the link and scroll down for some interesting commentary that appeared on the liner of this, Dylan's first album, then scroll down further for videos of earlier performances of some of the songs he covered on this album) through Bringing It All Back Home (1965), and a few on later albums. Some were never included in official Dylan albums, but only on bootlegs, and some others were never released by Dylan. As Michael Simmons noted in MOJO:
In addition to the obvious classics, there are renditions of little-known Bobtunes that in hindsight stand with his best from this time (15 of the songs here have never been officially released by Bob in any form). Long Time Gone is a powerful refutation of any attempt to tame the drifting protagonist. It includes the line "But I know I ain't no prophet / An' I ain't no prophet's son" - that predates the spokesman-for-a-generation furore (he may be more prophetic than he knows). With a sprightly rhythm, engaging melody and offbeat chord changes for the folk idiom, Guess I'm Doing Fine is another anthem of determination.
You can listen to 22 of the 47 tracks in this collection on the NPR website. The demo of "Blowin' in the Wind" struck me as better than the version released on The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, but this may just have been a "shock of the new" reaction. "Long Ago, Far Away", which I previously knew only from the Brothers Four Sing of Our Times album (you can play a sample here), seems badly recorded; Dylan's voice on "far away" sounding very screechy. The anthemic "When the Ship Comes In"--my favorite version has long been that of The Hillmen, Chris Hillman's pre-Byrds bluegrass group (listen here)--is here done by Dylan accompanying himself on piano, and done splendidly. Other songs I'd never heard, like the aforementioned "I'm Doing Fine", were especially pleasant surprises.

As Michael Simmons sums it up:
I'm betting a lot of young people of the 21st century will find comfort listening to this young man of the 20th as he begins his odyssey. All eras set challenges for young minds - and Lord knows everyone gets the blues. True artists make their own mistakes and learn their own lessons, but it never hurts to know where giants have trod before embarking on a journey of your own.