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By David Werther.

Bob Dylan, The Witmark Demos: 1962–1964 (Columbia, 2010)

Bob Dylan’s first recording, released in 1962, included only two originals and — by Columbia's standards — was a flop. In the next two and a half years, before reaching his 24th birthday, Dylan recorded 46 of his own songs as demos for the Leeds and Witmark publishing companies. The range of these originals is remarkable: blues (“Standing on the Highway”), anthems (“The Times They are A-Changin”), topical songs (“The Death of Emmet Till” — one of the fifteen previously unreleased songs contained in this collection), ballads (“Ballad of Hollis Brown), satirical comedy (“Talkin' John Birch Society Blues”), protest (“Masters of War”) and love songs (“Girl From the North Country”). And then there are some works harder to label, like the apocalyptic “A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall,” and a song that established Dylan as a creative genius, “Mr. Tambourine Man,” here performed on piano, as are “The Times They Are A-Changin” and “When the Ship Comes In.”

One way to look at these recordings is to emphasize their status as “demos,” unpolished performances, never intended for official release in the forms they take here. There is a lot to be said for this perspective. They are rough. Another way to see these recordings is to view them from the perspective of jazz, not pop. Clinton Helyin and Paul Williams have argued that Dylan's modus operandi is not to aim for polished, definitive versions of his songs — in the tradition of pop music — but, as with jazz, to capture inspired takes. For this reason he values freshness, and the Witmark recordings are nothing if not fresh. It is a joy to eavesdrop on a young Dylan alone in the studio.

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