At times, the recording quality isn’t the best. Neither is the performance: there are words that are forgotten, strings that need a tweak, and a throat that needs clearing.
But then again, it’s history we’re talking about here, folks: two and a half hours of early Bob Dylan, captured at a time when he could hardly keep pace with the songs that were spewing out of him. (Of course, making a case for anything from Dylan being important because it’s “history” is tough – isn’t it all history?) The 47 cuts on The Witmark Demos were actually intended to be that: demos and nothing more. At the time, they were recorded by music publishers Leeds Music and M. Witmark & Sons to help in the peddling of Dylan’s music to other artists.
So to put things in perspective, while the biggest part of the world first heard “Blowin’ In The Wind” as interpreted by Peter, Paul & Mary, here we have young Bob and his guitar laying down a fresh-from-the-pen take, complete with an explosive cough just before he goes into the final verse. It’s sort of like being able to look over a young Picasso’s shoulder while he wipes away a stray paint drip with his thumb.
The material on The Witmark Demos has been pirated in various forms and chunks for decades, but here you have a solid timeline of Dylan’s early work, laid out in chronological order. Listen to the opener, “Man On The Street”, sung in a voice that sounds 40 years older (until about a minute in, when he grinds to a halt with, “Jesus – can’t get it … I, I lost the verses.”). Then jump to the end of the second disc, where we find Dylan a couple years later, seated at the piano and singing in a style that borrows from no one, banging out a version of “I’ll Keep It With Mine”. What happens between those two cuts is a raw document of Bob Dylan’s evolution as Bob Dylan.
Is it essential listening? Maybe not.
Is it fascinating? Damn right.