The Witmark Demos/Bob Dylan
Review by Will Brennan
Bob Dylan recorded these songs for his publishing company, Witmark, after they bought out Dylan's previous contract from Leeds publishing, for $1000. It was one of the worst business deals in history, though no one would have forseen it at the time. Though the songs were recorded on simple equipment in Witmark's offices, the recordings themselves sound remarkably clear, mostly,while retaining a spontaneity and offhand manner, a sound that falls somewhere between actual studio recordings and Alan Lomax’s field recordings. This gives the songs a unique, relaxed feel – Dylan knows nothing is at stake here – he’s just putting down what amounted to recorded sheet music. So you hear foot tapping in the background, him stopping mid-song saying he can’t remember the rest or that he switched verses. Dylan tunes his guitar at the beginning a number of times, he doesn’t try to “perform” so much as he just lets the songs lay there and be what they are. Which gives them a peculiar charm, “stripped” in the most elemental sense.
Most of the songs will be familiar to Dylan fans, but there are some jewels and surprises for even the hardcore. Long Ago, Far Away is a searing indictment of humanity's injustice and cruelty that's every bit as timely today as it was then, a classic song that makes you scratch your head and wonder why it never was recorded for an album. You get to hear Dylan’s nicotine soaked throat work its way through the humorous and biting satire of Talkin’ Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues, then next up he pulls out the dry, spare, frightening Standing on the Highway, where he sounds like Robert Johnson’s abandoned son, painting the picture of a bleak lonely road where everybody passes him by. This song is a genuine existential country blues, a small masterpiece that ranks with his greatest recordings. When people first heard the young Dylan who hit the folk scene, it was this kind of song that caused them to rave about him as a burgeoning new talent. Bound to Lose, Bound to Win is a rambling troubadour song in the Woody vein, but the twenty year old Dylan sings it like he’s a grizzled old wayfarer with decades of travel under his belt. All Over You is a randy love/lust song that could have come out of the 30’s as one of the Mississippi Sheiks novelty songs.
Many of the songs here just present themselves as rough draft versions of the classic recordings we’re familiar with, but there are occasional revelations. In Boots of Spanish Leather – he starts out by saying, “This imposes a real problem… impose, is that the right word? Supposes a real problem…” Posits might have been the word he was looking for – but in the slowed telling of the tale, Dylan sounds just at the end of his weariness over the problem, which was the loss of his girlfriend Susie Rotolo, to her trip across Europe. As if reconciled to his fate, Dylan sounds like he’s viewing his own life dispassionately, almost objectively, from the outside, finding solace in the only place that he knows is reliable, lasting, forever. In a song. “The Witmark Recordings” offer these kind of inside glimpses of a young man with his barriers down, doing his job, making recordings for his publishing company so that sheet music could be made, or so that other artists wishing to cover his songs could have a reference demo. 15 of the 47 songs were never released as official recordings, and they’re probably the ones that Dylan aficionados will be most fascinated with. For instance, in A Hard Rain's a Gonna Fall, Dylan sings the following line that didn't make it into the official recording : "I heard the sound of one person who said he was human."
In the midst of his most off-hand moments here, something in Dylan often rises above the mundane circumstances, and he injects snippets of these songs with transcendent soul, timelessness and unmatched American troubadour artistry. When he sang most of them, he was no older than 22 years of age, but already had a weary old soul.