The Witmark Demos (Music Review)

The Witmark Demos cover

The Witmark Demos

The latest in Bob Dylan’s official “bootleg series”, The Witmark Demos showcases the demos he recorded at the start of his career. The catch is that, when these were recorded, not even he suspected that this was the first chapter of a folksinging life; instead, Dylan was hoping for success behind the scenes, and was simply recording these so that professional singers would buy them.

This appears to be a new trend for aging singer-songwriters. The Witmark Demos was released only a few months after Kris Kristofferson’s own collection of demos, Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends. A cynic might claim that they are now scraping the bottom of the barrel in their search for nostalgic material to package up and sell. In reality, these releases have a lot of value to people who are interested in the stories behind the songs. The idea of professional singers writing their own material was relatively new in the 1960’s, and the liner notes to Dylan’s release talk extensively about how he was at the forefront of this change.

If you just want to enjoy the songs, you’ll find it uneven. As if in warning, the first disc opens with “Man On The Street”, which Dylan stops abruptly because “I lost the verses”. Other songs are also incomplete (“Do you want this? It’s a drag”) or are interrupted so that Dylan can correct his lyrics. These aren’t necessarily songs that you’ll play over and over.

Don’t worry, though. Most of the songs are complete. They are still simple, with no production and little music other than Dylan’s own guitar and harmonica (after all, they were just recorded to help potential buyers imagine how they would sound), but Dylan doesn’t sound bad in a no-frills environment. Additionally, it’s impressive to hear how many of his future hits were fleshed out even at that early age. (Note that many are still structured as simple, traditional songs, such as “Rambling, Gambling Willie”. If you only like Dylan at his most complex, and don’t care for folk traditions, this isn’t for you.) Of the 47 tracks on these two discs, about two-thirds of them deserve to be in a Dylan obsessive’s regular rotation, even if they aren’t necessarily as good as the later versions. In fact, fifteen of these songs never made it into any official Dylan release, so they will be exciting to even more casual fans.

Personally, I am one of those casual fans. For me, the collection would have been much more interesting if it focused on those fifteen new songs, and then padded out the rest with other, better outtakes from Dylan’s early years. The collection as a whole is worth listening to a few times for its novelty, but isn’t something I’ll return to. Fortunately, I found the perfect way for someone like me to appreciate this set: I bought it for my brother, a true Dylan completist, and had a few weeks to enjoy it before I passed it on. I highly recommend that you do something similar.

Grade: B-


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