The Witmark Demos, 1962–1964
[The Bootleg Series, Volume 9]
First Appeared in The Music Box, September 2011, Volume 18, #6
Written by John Metzger
Mon September 12, 2011, 05:30 AM CDT
Bob Dylan’s ongoing series of archival recordings has jumped from place to place. Wherever it has landed, it has never failed to produce music of tremendous historical and cultural significance. The Witmark Demos, 1962–1964 is the ninth installment to emerge in the past two decades. Reversing the course set by the modern-day ruminations of Tell Tale Signs, The Witmark Demos, 1962–1964 expands upon the avenues pursued by the boxed set of rare and unreleased recordings that started the series. At the same time, though, it also highlights how Dylan’s beginnings led him, albeit in a circuitous fashion, to create his recent gem: Modern Times.
Much as its title suggests, The Witmark Demos, 1962–1964 offers a fascinating glimpse at Dylan’s formative years. Like everyone else at the time, Dylan launched his career by offering an interpretation of other people’s songs. Save for Talkin’ New York and Song to Woody, his self-titled debut highlighted his roots as he injected the spirit of Woody Guthrie into material penned by the likes of Mississippi Fred McDowell and Blind Lemon Jefferson. It was upon this foundation that Dylan not only gained his footing but also sculpted work that made him an instantaneous legend.
More than anything, though, Dylan wanted to perform and record his own material. After joining the Greenwich Village folk scene, he quickly amassed a large collection of songs, but he had nowhere to go with them. Columbia Records wasn’t quite ready to allow him to do his own thing. Likewise, the music industry in general was still split between songwriters who worked for publishing houses, and entertainers who used their output to enthrall the masses. Therefore, if Dylan wanted to earn a living, he had no choice but to pursue his craft from a different angle.
The 47 demos compiled on The Witmark Demos, 1962–1964 were designed primarily to convince other artists to interpret Dylan’s songs. Nevertheless, as his captivating presence illustrates, Dylan was bound for bigger things. At first, he penned new lyrics for traditional melodies, but his evolution was rapid. He not only took advantage of the collapse of the music industry’s existing power structures, but he also played a huge role in shattering their foundation. Consequently, The Witmark Demos, 1962–1964 highlights Dylan’s development as an artist as well as the seismic shifts that rumbled through the recording business in the early 1960s.
Of course, the music industry wasn’t alone in its turbulent rebirth. The rest of the world, too, was in the midst of a convergence of social, political, and cultural upheaval. The Witmark Demos, 1962–1964 traces an arc through Dylan’s spellbinding early efforts — The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin’, Another Side of Bob Dylan, and Bringing It All Back Home. In the process, it documents his transition from a diehard folk artist into the voice of a generation.
At the same time, The Witmark Demos, 1962–1964 also captures the essence of a nation in transition, one which was grappling with issues both at home (civil rights) and abroad (the Cuban Missile Crisis). The assassination of JFK shocked the country, while Beatlemania healed it. Dylan observed it all, and he transformed these moments into some of the most startlingly honest poetry ever penned in the modern era.
Of Further Interest...
The Witmark Demos, 1962–1964 / The Bootleg Series, Vol. 9 is available
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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