In the early 1960s, Bob Dylan set about changing the face of popular music with little more than a forceful personality and a talent for writing songs that popularized folk music without watering it down. But he was also a songwriter trying to make a buck. The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964 collects 47 demos Dylan recorded of his original material before age 24. The set opens with a session cut just eight weeks after the recording of his first album, which was largely a collection of other people’s songs. Less than three years had passed by the time Dylan cut the final track included here, “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” but in the intervening time, Dylan’s songs and the music world had changed profoundly. The “finger-pointing songs,” to use Dylan’s phrase, had given way to the introspection of “Mama, You’ve Been On My Mind” and the abstract imagery of “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
The music industry had shifted, too, largely thanks to Dylan. In his liner notes, Colin Escott walks through the system that produced the demos, which were pitched at leading other artists to cover Dylan’s songs, a method employed by professional songwriters everywhere with the ultimate aim of collecting royalties from other people’s recording success. But Dylan’s success as an interpreter of his own material helped make that system obsolete, and as others followed his example, popular music became increasingly dominated by artists who recorded their own work. The story behind the story here is that of a kid who tries to break into the songwriting game, and breaks it in the process.
As for the music, while it’s clearly going to be of greater interest to established Dylan fans, particularly the 15 songs that never made it onto official Dylan albums, the recordings still sound remarkably satisfying on their own. Take “When The Ship Comes In” from The Times They Are A Changin’. Though Dylan plays it unaccompanied on the album version, the lo-fi version here, with Dylan opting for piano rather than guitar, has its own intimate hold. He sounds like what he was beneath the myth he was already constructing for himself: a man with a gift for words and music, sitting in a small room and hoping someone outside would listen.