A new collection of previously unheard Bob Dylan demos offers an intimate listening experience of the musician's early work and documents a milestone in the history of recorded music that would change the fortunes of musicians forever, writes Graeme Thomson
Every few years over the past two decades, Bob Dylan has gathered up a few armfuls of his musical waifs and strays and made honest songs out of them. The ninth in the sprawling and always fascinating series of Dylan's Bootleg Series, The Witmark Demos comprises 47 solo recordings made between 1962 and 1964 for his publishing company, M Witmark & Sons, and never officially released until now.
It captures a period of dizzying artistic acceleration. On the opening track Man in the Street, Dylan sounds like just one of many Greenwich Village strummers channelling Woody Guthrie and Ramblin' Jack Elliott; quickly he moves up a gear, writing opaque but topical tone-poems such as A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall, which absorbed the structure and language of folk music but took it somewhere else entirely. Soon after, he's alone in the stratosphere: hearing Mr Tambourine Man bashed out on piano - Dylan's foot kicking time on the floor - it's like the moment in The Wizard of Oz where the world turns Technicolor.
Many of these recordings have been circulating illicitly for years. Of the 47 tracks, 15 are compositions that have never before been released in any form. Some are real finds - Ballad for a Friend is sad and beautiful and features some fine blues guitar - but most are rather generic folk strums and blues-based trifles that have remained in the vaults with good reason. The Witmark Demos is not the most riveting of Dylan's bootleg albums, primarily because these are not performances in the strictest sense. They are more like recitations, designed to get the words and melody down on tape with as little fuss as possible so the songs can be sold to other acts. It's work. At one point Dylan laments before recording Let Me Die in my Footsteps: "You want this? 'Cos it's awful long..."
But of course, eavesdropping on anything not originally intended for public consumption can be fascinating. Hearing Dylan creak and cough and crack up during these songs brings him closer to us, and with a gift as permanently "on" as his was at this time, he can't help but breathe fire into The Times They Are a-Changin' and Mama, You Been on My Mind as he records them for the very first time.
What lends this latest instalment of Dylan's marginalia added significance is what it reveals about an industry that was in the throes of a seismic shakedown every bit as game-changing as the one it's currently experiencing. In the first 60 years of the 20th century, there was a clear division of labour in the music industry: commercial songwriters would write and professional performers would perform. "Cover version" was an unheard-of phrase; all pop songs were cover versions. The cabal of Manhattan music publishers collectively known as Tin Pan Alley would circulate tapes of material to prospective singers. Albums by artists such as Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole would feature songs by a variety of songwriters affiliated to a variety of publishers. Everyone, in effect, got a slice of the pie.
Dylan changed all that. Despite the title, not all of these recordings were made for Witmark. Some of the earliest were recorded for Leeds-Duchess Music, to whom Dylan signed shortly after releasing his first album in 1961. Once he hooked up with his manager Albert Grossman - a Rottweiler trapped inside the body of a St Bernard - Dylan was swiftly manoeuvred out of his contract with Leeds-Duchess to sign a more lucrative deal with Witmark.
Grossman realised that publishing was crucial. On Dylan's second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, 11 of the 13 songs were original compositions, ensuring he fulfilled the role of both writer and performer. Aside from the immense freedom this gave him as an artist - and he certainly did use it - it meant he held all the aces. And he, Grossman and just one publisher got all of the pie.
By the end of The Witmark Demos, Dylan had established himself as an auteur who could have it both ways. He was following his wayward muse and writing strictly for his own satisfaction, and yet in 1965, 48 different artists covered his songs, attracted to the sound of something a million times more culturally resonant than anything coming out of the offices of uptown Manhattan. It wasn't really rock 'n' roll that killed Tin Pan Alley so much as a growing thirst for creative self-expression.
Soon everyone - including, crucially, Brian Epstein and the Beatles - realised that writing their own material was where the power lay. So when Dylan mugs and loons his way through the gloriously lascivious All Over You on The Witmark Demos it's not just the sound of a 22-year-old folkie goofing around. It's the sound of the music industry turning on its axis. "Tin Pan Alley is gone," he later said. "I put an end to it".
The Bootleg Series Vol 9 - The Witmark Demos (Sony) is out now.