In January, 1961, Bob Dylan arrived, unknown, in New York City. It wasn’t long before he was making the rounds of the “basket houses” (so called because the performers earned whatever they could collect in baskets that were passed around) of Greenwich Village. Things really got started for Dylan when NY Times music critic Robert Shelton wrote a positive review of a September Dylan performance at Gerde’s Folk City.
It was when Dylan showed up to play harmonica on a recording session for Carolyn Hester that he first encountered John Hammond, who soon after signed him to Columbia Records. Columbia released Dylan’s first album in April, 1962. It barely broke even.
Before Dylan arrived on the scene, songs emerged from a kingdom called Tin Pan Alley in New York City. Music publishers would then attempt to sell those songs to recording artists, with varying degrees of success. An album of ten songs by a popular singer of the day was likely to have songs by ten different writers or writing teams. Dylan changed all of that forever. Early on, he signed with a music publishing company called Leeds Music. In those days a songwriter would record demos for the publisher that would then be transcribed for sheet music, and used to help the publisher place the song with a recording artist. In January, 1962, Dylan did what was probably his only demo session for Leeds Music. He had just finished recording his first album, but it hadn’t been released yet.
That first album didn’t have much in the way of original Dylan material, and it didn’t make much of an impact. Around Columbia Records, Dylan began to be referred to as “Hammond’s Folly.” John Hammond kept the faith.
At the time, Artie Mogull was working for a company called Music Publisher’s Holding Company, a wholly owned subsidiary of Warner Bros. Shortly after the 1927 premier of the first talkie, The Jazz Singer, the people at Warners saw the value that music was going to have to them and bought up a number of music publishing companies, including one called Witmark & Sons that had been founded in 1885. One day Mogull was visited by Dylan’s first manager, Roy Silver, and based on the still minor success of Peter, Paul & Mary, Mogull, who had signed the trio to Warner Bros., was willing to listen. Just a few weeks earlier, Dylan had written his first truly great song, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and when Mogull heard it, he was convinced.
Of course there was one slight problem; Dylan was still signed to Leeds Music for publishing. Around the same time, Albert Grossman took over as Dylan’s manager, and Mogull gave them $1,000 to buy their way out of the Leeds contract. Leeds, unimpressed with the performance of that first album, was only too happy to let Dylan go. As Colin Escott says in the very fine essay that accompanies this two-disc set, “It was July, 1962, six months after Decca Records in England auditioned the Beatles and Brian Poole, and decided that Poole was the better bet.” Something must have been in the water in those days.
Dylan was under a lot of pressure when it came time for his second album, but he needn’t have worried. By the time he signed his new publishing deal, he’d already recorded “Blowin’ In the Wind” for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, and Peter, Paul & Mary turned it into a massive hit. That was just the first of many, many covers of the indelible anthem.
Columbia wouldn’t let their new artists into the studio for the purpose of making demos, but Witmark would, and it was at the Witmark offices at 51st and Madison, in a six-by-eight foot studio, that Dylan recorded most of the publishing demos found on The Bootleg Series Vol. 9 – The Witmark Demos (Columbia Records). There are 47 Bob Dylan songs here, recorded for Leeds and Witmark, between 1962 and 1964. Here you will find Dylan classics like the aforementioned “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “The Times They Are A-Changin'” and “Masters of War.” My favorites from this group are a poignant reading of “Tomorrow Is A Long Time,” and the mournful “Boots of Spanish Leather,” both inspired by the Dylan’s relationship with Suze Rotolo who so famously walked arm and arm with the songwriter on the cover of Freewheelin’. The real treasure though comes in the form of 15 Dylan songs that were recorded for these sessions, but never before officially released. These include the pensive “Ballad For A Friend,” the civil rights era-inspired “Long Ago, Far Away,” and “The Death of Emmett Till,” and the wistful “Guess I’m Doing Fine.”
It all adds us to an embarrassment of riches. The recordings are rough. Dylan coughs, stumbles over and sometimes forgets lyrics, stops abruptly in mid-song, and makes small reference-type comments about the songs. And none of that matters one bit. Listening to the Witmark Demos is a totally rewarding experience from a historical perspective. For someone like me, who carries Dylan around in his heart everywhere he goes, this is transcendent.
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