friday feast: the demos that made bob dylan famous

“In the jigsaw that is Bob Dylan, ‘The Witmark Demos’ are crucial pieces, and it’s easy to get lost in the depths, the sheer audacity and beauty, of this music.” **** ~ UNCUT

(2-CD set released October 2010)

Just when you think you can’t love Dylan’s music any more than you already do, along comes “The Witmark Demos.”

Many of you already know about my passion obsession  unabashed worship of this man, whom I consider to be the greatest American songwriter of our time. I admit I’m not one to flat out love everything he does, nor am I familiar with every single one of his 500+ compositions. But I thought I pretty much had the early part of his career covered, being familiar with the definitive recordings of his trademark anthems and some of the Bootleg albums containing alternate arrangements, out-takes, etc.

Well. “The Witmark Demos” are something else again.


Think in terms of historic milestone. The birth of the singer-songwriter movement. A monumental shift in the music publishing industry. A young artist/musician on the cusp of fame, already displaying flashes of genius. To all the naysayers who still can’t see what the big deal is about Bob Dylan, I say, “Just open your hearts and listen.”

You will hear:

♥ A young man in his 20’s, newly arrived in NYC, singing and playing his own compositions on guitar, harmonica, and piano. The music publisher made these demos (samples) to copyright and transcribe the songs, with the hope that other, more well-known artists would include them on future records.

♥ A distinctive voice — by turns rousing, plaintive, comical, soulful, rebellious, satirical, irreverent.

♥ The roots of American music (traditional forms like blues, folk, gospel), absorbed, mastered, transformed and personalized by an artist who sought to deepen these genres by blending in social, political, and literary elements, i.e., “the innovative transformation of source materials.”

♥ The “X” factor, that inexplainable something that set this man’s music apart from anyone else’s at the time — call it natural talent, genius, intuitive know-how. Whatever it was, it was revolutionary enough to change the way records were made, and ultimately, the course of popular music.

♥ A master chronicler, minstrel, clown, vaudevillian, chameleon, ballsy upstart assuming various dramatic personae.

♥ Earliest versions of well-known songs like “Girl from the North Country,” “Boots of Spanish Leather,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” and “The Times, They are a-Changin’,” freshly inked, pure and unadulterated.

Most of the 47 songs were written before Dylan was 24, in a 2-1/2 year burst of creativity (recorded between 1962-1964). When asked how he was able to write so prolifically, he said, “The process was new to me.” Because the songs are arranged chronologically, the listener is able to witness the earliest stages of his evolution (mastering the existing canon, writing new lyrics to old melodies, then finally tapping into his own innerscapes and writing original melodies). Dylan’s 2008 Pulitzer Prize Citation cited his “lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.” And it’s all here.


“Guess I’m Doing Fine,” is my favorite of the 15 previously unreleased songs in the set. I liked it immediately — its plainness, poignancy and measure of hope tug at the heartstrings.

Today’s Poetry Friday Roundup is being hosted by Terry at Scrub-a-Dub-Tub. Enjoy all the cool poems and have a great weekend!

♥ This post is brought to you by Freewheelin’, Free-thinking, Finger-pointing Folk.

*Photos in this post (amhpics/flickr) taken at the East Greenwich Village loft and rooftop of famed photographer John Cohen in 1962. These, along with many other remarkable images, can be found in Young Bob: John Cohen’s Early Photographs of Bob Dylan (Powerhouse Books, 2003).

Copyright © 2010 Jama Rattigan of jama rattigan’s alphabet soup. All rights reserved.