The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964

Two early numbers might stand out very quickly on this 47-song, two-CD collection of publishers' demo recordings from the first years of Bob Dylan's career—recordings he made while sitting in the offices first of Leeds Music, a relatively small-time outfit, and then, for the great bulk of them, at Witmark Music, as prestigious and venerable a house as any in New York. He was sitting in chairs as men ran tape recorders. Someone else would write down the lyrics and prepare lead sheets, so the songs could be copyrighted and, ideally, licensed to other performers; that was where the money was. Dylan was supposed to be a songwriter—the folk magazines Broadside and Sing Out! were featuring his stuff. He wasn't necessarily considered much of a singer. At Leeds or Witmark he didn't always seem like one. "I could never just sit in a room and just play for myself," Dylan wrote six years ago in his book Chronicles, Volume One. "I needed to play for people and all the time." Here performance was not at issue. It wouldn't have been hard to believe his career would be on paper.


"Let's just put this one down for kicks," Dylan says; he'd already given Witmark dim versions of "Blowin' in the Wind" (sludgy and halting—truly a demo for somebody else, anyone might have thought), "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," "Let Me Die in My Footsteps," "Ballad of Hollis Brown," songs that would come to irrefutable life on stage or on The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan in 1963 and The Times They Are A-Changin' in 1964. This is just for kicks because it's funny, because it's heedlessly carnal: "If I had to do it all over again, babe, I'd do it all over you," and the chorus gets more specific as the song goes on.


Now he is performing: singing to the song, if nothing else. He's laughing, but the laughter is as shaped, as much in service to the song as lines that revel in their own delight, the delight of getting it right, of taking ordinary phrases anyone might stick in a song and nailing them to the wall with one that no one else would: "Well, a dog's got his bone in the alley / A cat, she's got nine lives / A millionaire's got a million dollars / King Saud's got 400 wives"—but I only need to do it all over you. Here, the impishness that is missing from other songs that on record would be like stand-up comedy routines Richard Pryor might have envied, or for that matter learned from—"I Shall Be Free," "Bob Dylan's Blues"—has found a perfect home. The song, the moment, is a thing in itself. Dylan never released it; Dave van Ronk included it on his In the Tradition in 1963, maybe because he could imagine Cab Calloway singing it.


One song later on The Witmark Demos there's the dreary "I'd Hate to Be You on that Dreadful Day" ("My calypso-type number," Dylan says of this put-down of people who won't get into heaven), and one song after that is "Long Time Gone." It is, maybe, a song a lot of other people could have written: "I'm a long time comin' / I'll be a long time gone." The words were common speech in the world of the folk revival: a heady phrase, if you could pull it off, which everybody else used to refer to something else: "It's been a long time coming," someone might say of the blues singer Robert Johnson's "Stones in My Passway," which was recorded in 1937 but did not see the light of day until 1961, twenty-four years after Johnson's murder. "It'll be a long time gone." It was a hip line to use. But Dylan's use of the phrase doesn't sound hip. It sounds earned, lived, and as if it's still being lived: as if the singer, whoever he is, is disappearing as you listen. Now it's not common speech, it's plain speech, which takes nerve to use.


The delivery is clumsy at the start, but it doesn't matter. What does is the idea, and the melody, and the idea is contained within the melody. It calls up a cowboy ballad, if there were one called "No Home on the Range," which actually there is: Ken Maynard's 1930 "The Lone Star Trail." It's a song Dylan knew from Harry Smith's 1952 assemblage Anthology of American Folk Music—a song which Dylan's does not in any formal sense resemble. Maynard is dreamy, if defeated; the person singing now is determined, bitter, damaged. This is someone, you can imagine, who'd make you flinch if you passed him on the street, someone who'd make you leave if you overheard him talking to himself in a bar.


He's been a cowboy, a carnie, a drifter, he says, and even if a late verse about being on the road to show others right and wrong rings false ("I ain't no prophet, and I ain't no prophet's son," the singer says, and nothing in the song, as opposed to the tumult already surrounding Bob Dylan's every move, would have suggested he was), you believe these roads have been walked on. In its tightened, brittle way, the song goes to the edge of the generic and takes one step back; then from where the singer stands the whole notion of the generic ceases to make any sense to a listener, not when you're hearing someone who is so clearly telling you what he means. In its way, this composition, left off of Dylan's albums of the time, says everything said in "Drifter's Escape" on John Wesley Harding in 1968 or "Cold Irons Bound" on Time Out of Mind twenty-nine years after that. You can credit that this would be someone's last word: he'll be out there, but you won't know. "Here's to the hearts and the hands of the men / That come with the dust and are gone with the wind," from Dylan's 1961 "Song to Woody"—from Woody Guthrie, for that matter—was a Western starring James Stewart, if not Walter Brennan; this song is sung by Charles Bronson in Once Upon a Time in the West, if not by Claudia Cardinale.


The Witmark Demos is a record of mistakes as much as anything else, of sentimental notions pushed into songs and dying there ("Man on the Street," in two versions, "About an old man who never done wrong"—he'd be the first); tunes so full of condescension ("Long Ago, Far Away," "Quit Your Lowdown Ways," "Whatcha Gonna Do?") it's as if some folk-singer machine is singing, because you can't imagine anyone being this self-righteous; of trifles that weren't good enough for albums ("Gypsy Lou," "Hero Blues," "Ain't Gonna Grieve," "Guess I'm Doing Fine"). The set is, among other things, a documentary of a certain stage in a certain person's work. But the last two numbers escape from that. No sensible tracing of anyone's development as a writer, singer, or performer can account for what happens here, and no complaints about their muffled sound or apparent lack of form can take anything away from them.


"Mr. Tambourine Man" is played on piano, with chorded bass notes, more a meter than a melody or even a rhythm. Singing as if from under the song, Dylan sounds more like William Burroughs than anyone else, even himself: that prairie flat, the voice of someone who's been there and gone, yes, and then came back and left again. Everything here is slow: when the singer says "My weariness amazes me," you've already felt it. The performance is so down to earth it at once highlights and mocks any fancy images ("Your ancient empty streets," when, here in any case, "streets" is all the performance wants). Just as the singer in "Long Time Gone" did pass through the song's carnivals and campsites, this is someone who hasn't slept for days, who's forgotten exactly what sleep is or what it's for—someone who's so tired he can barely think, who simply keeps putting one foot in front of the other and, as he does so, begins to wake up. The song has him: as Dylan wrote of the old songs in Chronicles, of "Pretty Polly" or "The Cuckoo," "if it called out to you, you could disappear and be sucked into it." Something else happened when Dylan recorded the song for the 1965 Bringing It All Back Home, but that's what happens here.


The next song on the set, and the last, is "I'll Keep It with Mine"—a different version appeared in 1991 on Dylan's first bootleg series release. Again the piano, again the distant sound and deadly fatigue, and a song that seems to have cast as powerful a spell on the singer as "Mr. Tambourine Man." Here he moves far more deliberately—the first song has already cleared his eyes. Something has been lost, and someone is looking for it—but neither the singer nor the person he's singing to will find it, because what's been lost is one's self. A small drama of empathy and estrangement begins to play itself out. Dylan can't find the rhythm in the words, spaces open up between words and syllables that don't seem right, as if he's making up the words, hanging them on bare chords as he goes along, but none of that seems to get in the way: in a labyrinth full of smoke, everything is clear.


You don't want the song to end, and it doesn't. At the end, the tape is cut, just a moment short of where the ending might have been.

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