Like any fledgling songwriter, Bob Dylan signed with a publishing company at the outset of his career. Publishers are standard practice for songwriters -- it’s where the money comes in, as songs are published, performed, and covered -- but in the early ‘60s there was an expectation that publishers would help place songs in the hands of appropriate singers, a practice Dylan effectively ended by popularizing writers singing their own songs, but in 1962, this self-sufficiency was a rarity. Even his 1962 debut contained only three Dylan originals, which in his case reflected his traditional folk roots, but Dylan needed a publisher for those three songs so John Hammond, who signed the singer/songwriter to Columbia, pointed him toward Leeds Music. Dylan cut a demo session for Leeds between the recording and release of Bob Dylan and when that album wound up stiffing, Leeds let him buy out his contract in the summer of 1962, which then led to him signing with M. Witmark & Sons publishing company. Between 1962 and 1964, a period that roughly spanned “Blowin’ in the Wind” to “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Dylan cut several demo sessions for Witmark, usually with the intent of the publisher pitching songs to other singers. Many of his early classics were first essayed here -- “A Hard-Rain’s Gonna Fall,” “Masters of War,” “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright,” “Boots of Spanish Leather,” “Girl from the North Country,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’” -- and he also cut songs he never revisited. Some wound up with other artists -- “Seven Curses,” “Tomorrow Is a Long Time,” “Mama, You Been on My Mind” -- some were lost to time, leaking out on bootlegs until they officially surfaced on 2010’s The Bootleg Series, Vol. 9: The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964.
Many of these recordings have been heavily bootlegged, some excerpted on previous Bootleg Series, but they’ve never been presented as completely and in as great fidelity as they are on this two-disc set. Great fidelity seems almost unnecessary for such simple recordings, although the cleanliness enhances the intimacy, so familiar songs are lent freshness when surrounded by the thumping of a microphone or closing of a door. This disarming intimacy -- verging on eavesdropping -- is as attractive as the 15 songs that never appeared on an official Dylan album. Some of these songs are throwaways -- “Bound to Lose, Bound to Win” lacks finished verses, with Bob promising that he’ll write them down later -- but there’s considerable charm in hearing Dylan tossing off a song, plus some of these half-forgotten discards, like “Guess I’m Doing Fine” and “All Over You,” are still quite strong. Nevertheless, the real appeal of this volume of the Bootleg Series is to listen as Dylan develops as a songwriter and artist. The songs spilled forth at an astonishing rate, and the great majority were not only superb, they were different from what came before, with his Woody Guthrie homage quickly replaced by a quick-witted protest singer who then started to delve into the personal in revolutionary ways. At its core, these demos are the sound of Dylan becoming Bob Dylan, and it's an evolution that’s spellbinding.