Two earlynumbers might stand out very quickly on this 47-song, two-CD collection ofpublishers’ demo recordings from the first years of Bob Dylan’scareer—recordings he made while sitting in the offices first of Leeds Music, arelatively small-time outfit, and then, for the great bulk of them, at WitmarkMusic, as prestigious and venerable a house as any in New York. He was sittingin chairs as men ran tape recorders. Someone else would write down the lyricsand prepare lead sheets, so the songs could be copyrighted and, ideally,licensed to other performers; that was where the money was. Dylan was supposedto be a songwriter—the folk magazines Broadsideand Sing Out! were featuring hisstuff. He wasn’t necessarily considered much of a singer. At Leeds or Witmarkhe didn’t always seem like one. “I could never just sit in a room and justplay for myself,” Dylan wrote six years ago in his book Chronicles, Volume One. “Ineeded to play for people and all the time.” Here performance was not atissue. It wouldn’t have been hard to believe his career would be on paper.
“Let’s just put this one down for kicks,” Dylansays; 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 lifeon stage or on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in 1963and The Times They Are A-Changin’ in 1964.This is just for kicks because it’s funny, because it’s heedlessly carnal: “IfI had to do it all over again, babe, I’d do it all over you,” and thechorus 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 aslines that revel in their own delight, the delight of getting it right, oftaking ordinary phrases anyone might stick in a song and nailing them to thewall with one that no one else would: “Well, a dog’s got his bone in thealley / 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 likestand-up comedy routines Richard Pryor might have envied, or for that matterlearned from—”I Shall Be Free,” “Bob Dylan’s Blues”—hasfound a perfect home. The song, the moment, is a thing in itself. Dylan neverreleased it; Dave van Ronk included it on his In the Tradition in 1963, maybe because he could imagine CabCalloway singing it.
One song later on TheWitmark Demos there’sthe dreary “I’d Hate to Be You on that Dreadful Day” (“Mycalypso-type number,” Dylan says of this put-down of people who won’t getinto 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 timecomin’ / I’ll be a long time gone.” The words were common speech in theworld of the folk revival: a heady phrase, if you could pull it off, whicheverybody else used to refer to something else: “It’s been a long timecoming,” someone might say of the blues singer Robert Johnson’s “Stonesin My Passway,” which was recorded in 1937 but did not see the light ofday until 1961, twenty-four years after Johnson’s murder. “It’ll be a longtime gone.” It was a hip line to use. But Dylan’s use of the phrase doesn’tsound hip. It sounds earned, lived, and as if it’s still being lived: as if thesinger, whoever he is, is disappearing as you listen. Now it’s not commonspeech, it’s plain speech, which takes nerve to use.
Thedelivery 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 acowboy ballad, if there were one called “No Home on the Range,” whichactually there is: Ken Maynard’s 1930 “The Lone Star Trail.” It’s asong Dylan knew from Harry Smith’s 1952 assemblage Anthology of American Folk Music—a songwhich Dylan’s does not in any formal sense resemble. Maynard is dreamy, ifdefeated; the person singing now is determined, bitter, damaged. This issomeone, you can imagine, who’d make you flinch if you passed him on thestreet, someone who’d make you leave if you overheard him talking to himself ina bar.
He’s been a cowboy, a carnie, a drifter, he says, and evenif a late verse about being on the road to show others right and wrong ringsfalse (“I ain’t no prophet, and I ain’t no prophet’s son,” the singersays, and nothing in the song, as opposed to the tumult already surrounding BobDylan’s every move, would have suggested he was), you believe these roads havebeen walked on. In its tightened, brittle way, the song goes to the edge of thegeneric and takes one step back; then from where the singer stands the wholenotion of the generic ceases to make any sense to a listener, not when you’rehearing someone who is so clearly telling you what he means. In its way, thiscomposition, left off of Dylan’s albums of the time, says everything said in “Drifter’sEscape” on John Wesley Harding in 1968or “Cold Irons Bound” on TimeOut of Mind twenty-nineyears after that. You can credit that this would be someone’s last word: he’llbe out there, but you won’t know. “Here’s to the hearts and the hands ofthe men / That come with the dust and are gone with the wind,” from Dylan’s1961 “Song to Woody”—from Woody Guthrie, for that matter—was aWestern starring James Stewart, if not Walter Brennan; this song is sung byCharles Bronson in Once Upon a Time inthe West, if not by Claudia Cardinale.
The WitmarkDemos is a record of mistakes as much as anything else, ofsentimental 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 thefirst); tunes so full of condescension (“Long Ago, Far Away,” “QuitYour Lowdown Ways,” “Whatcha Gonna Do?”) it’s as if somefolk-singer machine is singing, because you can’t imagine anyone being thisself-righteous; of trifles that weren’t good enough for albums (“GypsyLou,” “Hero Blues,” “Ain’t Gonna Grieve,” “GuessI’m Doing Fine”). The set is, among other things, a documentary of acertain stage in a certain person’s work. But the last two numbers escape fromthat. No sensible tracing of anyone’s development as a writer, singer, orperformer can account for what happens here, and no complaints about theirmuffled sound or apparent lack of form can take anything away from them.
“Mr. Tambourine Man” is played on piano, withchorded bass notes, more a meter than a melody or even a rhythm. Singing as iffrom 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 andgone, yes, and then came back and left again. Everything here is slow: when thesinger says “My weariness amazes me,” you’ve already felt it. Theperformance is so down to earth it at once highlights and mocks any fancyimages (“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’tslept for days, who’s forgotten exactly what sleep is or what it’s for—someonewho’s so tired he can barely think, who simply keeps putting one foot in frontof the other and, as he does so, begins to wake up. The song has him: as Dylanwrote of the old songs in Chronicles,of “Pretty Polly” or “The Cuckoo,” “if it called outto you, you could disappear and be sucked into it.” Something elsehappened when Dylan recorded the song for the 1965 Bringing It All Back Home, butthat’s what happens here.
The next song on the set, and the last, is “I’ll KeepIt with Mine”—a different version appeared in 1991 on Dylan’s firstbootleg series release. Again the piano, again the distant sound and deadlyfatigue, and a song that seems to have cast as powerful a spell on the singeras “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Here he moves far more deliberately—thefirst song has already cleared his eyes. Something has been lost, and someoneis looking for it—but neither the singer nor the person he’s singing to willfind it, because what’s been lost is one’s self. A small drama of empathy andestrangement begins to play itself out. Dylan can’t find the rhythm in thewords, spaces open up between words and syllables that don’t seem right, as ifhe’s making up the words, hanging them on bare chords as he goes along, butnone of that seems to get in the way: in a labyrinth full of smoke, everythingis clear.
You don’t want the song to end, and it doesn’t. At theend, the tape is cut, just a moment short of where the ending might have been.