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Yet another side of Bob Dylan: The Witmark Demos

Dylan's early demos were made in the hopes of getting other musicians to cover his songs. Now we can all hear Dylan's genius taking form.

"The Witmark Demos" two-CD (or four-LP) set features 47 Bob Dylan songs recorded for his music publishers, Leeds Music and M. Witmark & Sons between 1962 and 1964. Fifteen songs have never been officially released until now. All of the songs on "The Witmark Demos" were written and recorded before Dylan was 24 years old.

Some of the earliest songs on "The Witmark Demos" weren't first heard on Dylan's own albums; they were covered by others, including Peter, Paul, and Mary, Stevie Wonder, Judy Collins, and the Byrds. In 1962-3 Dylan was primarily known as a songwriter, and the demos were made in hopes of getting more artists to cover his songs.

The demos weren't recorded at official Columbia Records sessions, so there's no fancy production or sweetening, just Dylan singing and playing his guitar in a tiny 6-by-8-foot studio at Witmark Publishing on 51st Street and Madison Ave. in NYC. "The Witmark Demos" contains Dylan's very first recordings of songs like "Blowin' In the Wind" and "The Times They Are A-Changin'," so it's almost as if you're hearing them at their moment of creation.

Columbia Records

Reissue producer Steve Berkowitz worked from the surviving original analog tapes and promo records. The amount of research that went into finding the best possible tapes and other materials from nearly 50 years ago was extensive. Even so, some tunes are distorted and downright fuzzy, and sound quality varies from track to track, but most are good, and some are the best, most natural sounding versions I've heard. The demo recordings are free of dynamic range compression so you really hear Dylan singing his guts out. "Boots Of Spanish Leather" gave me a new appreciation for Dylan's singing. He's really thinking about the words.

I was surprised to hear Dylan playing a piano on the "The Times They Are A-Changin'" and "Mr. Tambourine Man" demos; the songs sound very different without guitar. Berkowitz was especially pleased with the way "The Witmark Demos" transferred to vinyl; he credits engineer Mark Wilder for his stellar work and bringing in the best technology to serve the music.

Berkowitz started working on Dylan's "Bootleg Series" releases right from the beginning, with Volumes 1-3 in 1991; and now with Volume 9, the "Bootleg Series" runs to a total of 15 CDs. I have them all and consider them essential for Dylan fans. I actually prefer the sound quality on many of the "Bootlegs" to the actual releases. Much of the music was never intended for release, so there's not much production or tinkering with the sound of the recordings.

"The Witmark Demos" on 180-gram LP or CD comes with a beautifully illustrated booklet featuring vintage photographs of a very young Bob Dylan, and Colin Escott's essay covering the long and winding road of Dylan's earliest professional recordings.

Columbia Records will release Bob Dylan's The "Bootleg Series Volume 9--The Witmark Demos," "Bob Dylan--The Original Mono Recordings," and the single-CD "The Best of The Original Mono Recordings" on October 19. Amazon is throwing in (for free) "Bob Dylan: In Concert, Brandeis University, 1963," an extremely rare and newly discovered Bob Dylan live concert CD to customers who preorder "The Bootleg Series Vol. 9" or "The Original Mono Recordings" on CD or vinyl.

I reviewed the "Bob Dylan--The Original Mono Recordings" in this post.