Essential Music: Bob Dylan’s Witmark Demos

220px Bob Dylan The Bootleg Series Volume 9Between February, 1962 and June, 1964, Bob Dylan, at the dawn of his career, made a number of recordings for two publishing companies, Leeds Music and M. Witmark & Sons. These recordings were released in 2010 as The Bootleg Series: Vol. 9: The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964. (, Amazon UK)

Dylan had recorded his first album in late 1961, which was mostly covers, along with two original songs. His originals – the ones on the album, but also those that he was performing – were interesting enough to spur his producer at Columbia Records, John Hammond, to set up a meeting between Dylan and Lou Levy, at Leeds Music Publishing. The goal was to record songs so that other singers could hear them, and potentially buy the rights to record them. He recorded eight songs for Leeds.

In early 1962, manager Albert Grossman also became interested in Dylan. He suggested that Dylan sign with M. Witmark & Sons for publishing. Since Leeds hadn’t earned anything from Dylan, they let him out of his contract, and he signed with Witmark. In a dozen sessions, Dylan recorded 39 songs for Witmark.

In a way, this minimalist Dylan is the most authentic version of his songs that we have, other than some early live recordings. These songs show Dylan in a very relaxed atmosphere; just him, his guitar, and his harmonica, in a simple studio. The recording quality isn’t always great, and Dylan’s not performing for an audience, but he is clearly aware that he needs to set down these songs in a form that will be nearly canonical. Some of the performances are as good, or ever better than what was released on his albums.

This two-CD set – officially released in 2010, but bootlegged for decades previously – contains an example of the early Dylan showing off his own work, and, while not as perfect as later recordings, stands as a powerful example of his early songs. Many classics are here: Boots Of Spanish Leather, Ballad Of Hollis Brown, Masters Of War, Girl From the North Country, The Times They Are A-Changin’, Mr. Tambourine Man. But there are also 15 songs that Dylan never recorded, showing just how prolific he was in the early ears.

The recording quality ranges from good to merely acceptable, but the music comes through, fresh, powerful, full of the potential that we now know was to come. Dylan knew he was going to be great in this period, and the quality of the songs he was writing must have been a clear sign to producers and publishers that he was to become a star.