Long ago and far away: Dylan’s Witmark demos

Bob Dylan in 1962

Bob Dylan in 1962

Ramblin’ outa the wild West,
Leavin’ the towns I love the best.
Thought I’d seen some ups and down,
Til I come into New York town.
People goin’ down to the ground,
Buildings goin’ up to the sky.

Wintertime in New York town,
The wind blowin’ snow around.
Walk around with nowhere to go,
Somebody could freeze right to the bone.
I froze right to the bone.

I swung on to my old guitar,
Grabbed hold of a subway car,
And after a rocking, reeling, rolling ride,
I landed up on the downtown side;
Greenwich Village.

I walked down there and ended up
In one of them coffee-houses on the block.
Got on the stage to sing and play,
Man there said, “Come back some other day,
You sound like a hillbilly;
We want folk singers here.”

Well, I got a harmonica job, begun to play,
Blowin’ my lungs out for a dollar a day.
I blowed inside out and upside down.
The man there said he loved m’ sound,
He was ravin’ about how he loved m’ sound;
Dollar a day’s worth.
– Bob Dylan, ‘Talking New York’, 1961

America was changing. I had a feeling of destiny and I was riding the changes. My consciousness was beginning to change, too, change and stretch. One thing for sure, if I wanted to compose folk songs I would need some kind of new template, some philosophical identity that wouldn’t burn out. It would have to come on its own from the outside. Without knowing it in so many words, it was beginning to happen.
– Bob Dylan, Chronicles, Volume 1

Sometime in June 1963, probably via Radio Luxembourg, I first heard Peter Paul and Mary’s polished version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’.  A few weeks later, listening to coverage of the March on Washington where Martin Luther King gave his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, I heard them sing it live from the podium at the Lincoln Memorial.  That was the first time I heard Dylan himself, singing ‘When The Ship Comes In’ and ‘Only a Pawn In Their Game’.

Dylan had only become known outside the New York folk scene in the previous month or so: he had he played the Newport Folk Festival for the first time, and had released his second album, Freewheelin’.  That LP and its successor Times They Are A-Changin’ gained a place alongside the Peter Paul and Mary single in my record collection: more than music, they were my conscience, the moment in history, the spirit of the time.

Peter Paul and Mary first heard ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ amongst the demos that Bob Dylan made for the prestigious music publishers M. Witmark & Sons. The Witmarks were Prussian immigrants who established the company in 1885, only 8 years after Edison had patented his phonograph.  Their business was songs, which is where the money was in the music industry.  Artists would record their songs for publishing companies so they could be heard by other artists who might cover their songs. Witmark’s studio, where Dylan recorded his demos, was a small 6×8 foot space where songs were recorded before being transcribed into sheet music. In the opening pages of Chronicles Volume 1, Dylan describes the scene in the cold New York winter when he first began laying down demos:

Outside the wind was blowing, straggling cloud wisps, snow whirling in the red lanterned streets, city types scuffling around, bundled up – salesmen in rabbit fur earmuffs hawking gimmicks, chestnut vendors, steam rising out of manholes…

I opened my guitar case, took the guitar out and began fingering the strings. The room was cluttered – boxes of sheet music stacked up, recording dates of artists posted on bulletin boards, black lacquered discs, acetates with white labels scrambled around, signed photos of entertainers, glossy portraits – Jerry Vale, Al Martino, The Andrews Sisters (Lou was married to one of them), Nat King Cole, Patti Page, The Crew Cuts – a couple of console reel-to-reel tape recorders, big dark brown wooden desk full of hodgepodge.

The Witmark demos – many of them, at least – have been around on bootlegs for decades, and one or two have turned up on previous official Dylan releases.  But now we have this new collection – The Witmark Demos 1962-1964 – that features all the Witmarks. Rough and raw, with false starts and Dylan forgetting the lyrics at times, it provides fascinating documentation of the speed at which Dylan’s art was moving in this period.  Here are near-on 50 songs –  all written before Dylan’s 24th birthday – that include works of genius such as ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, ‘Ballad of Hollis Brown’, and ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’.  The set opens with  conventional, Guthrie-styled folk material such as ‘Hard Times In New York Town’, moves speedily through the folk-protest anthems and social commentary of ‘Masters of War’ and ‘Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues’ before concluding, a mere two years later with Dylan striking out for new shores on ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ and ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’.

I can’t say when it occurred to me to write my own songs. I couldn’t have come up with anything comparable or halfway close to the folk song lyrics I was singing to define the way I felt about the world. I guess it happens to you by degrees. You just don’t wake up one day and decide that you need to write songs, especially if you’re a singer who has plenty of them and you’re learning more every day. Opportunities may come along for you to convert something – something that exists into something that didn’t yet. That might be the beginning of it. Sometimes you just want to do things your way, want to see for yourself what lies behind the misty curtain. It’s not like you see songs approaching and invite them in.  You want to write songs that are bigger than life.
– Bob Dylan, Chronicles, Volume 1

Among the notable songs officially released here for the first time is ‘Long Ago and Far Away’, one of several songs where he turned a spiritual into a civil rights anthem.  Rather like ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, it poses a series of rhetorical questions that probe contemporary events:

The chains of slaves
They dragged the ground
With heads and hearts hung low.
But it was during Lincoln’s time
And it was long ago.
Long ago, far away;
Things like that don’t happen
No more, nowadays.

The war guns they went off wild,
The whole world bled its blood.
Men’s bodies floated on the edge
Of oceans made of mud.
Long ago, far away;
Those kind of things don’t happen
No more, nowadays.

One man had much money,
One man had not enough to eat,
One man lived just like a king,
The other man begged on the street.
Long ago, far away;
These things don’t happen
No more, nowadays.

One man died of a knife so sharp,
One man died from the bullet of a gun,
One man died of a broken heart
To see the lynchin’ of his son.
Long ago, far away;
Things like that don’t happen
No more, nowadays.

And to talk of peace and brotherhood,
Oh, what might be the cost!
A man he did it long ago
And they hung him on a cross.
Long ago, far away;
Things like that don’t happen
No more, nowadays, do they?

One of the most perceptive accounts of Dylan’s trajectory in this period is Ian MacDonald’s essay – ‘Wild Mercury: A Tale of Two Dylans‘ (published in The People’s Music, 2001) – in which he writes:

‘Hard Times In New York City’ [which opens The Witmark Demos 1962-1964] is an act – or part of one. Though it may sound like it, this isn’t some visionary farm-boy new in town from deepest Oklahoma, but a shrewd middle-class Jewish college-dropout who, a mere two-and-a-half years back, signed off from high-school, recording his Yearbook ambition as “To join Little Richard”. He’s been a folk guitarist for little longer, having previously played rock-and-roll electric and piano. He took up harmonica a year ago.

“Bob Dylan” was as much the artistic invention (fiction) of Robert Allen Zimmerman as Ziggy Stardust was of David Robert Jones, alias David Bowie. This isn’t to say that Zimmerman didn’t, at one time, fully inhabit the role, just as Bowie “became” Ziggy. But there are creative limits to such personae – not to mention the risk of becoming identified with them and going gradually mad. In Bowie’s case, the role soon began to play him; within a year of assuming the persona of Ziggy, he had to get rid of him or crack up. For Bob Zimmerman at 20, there was a more immediate peril: exposure.

Bob Zimmerman had made a coolly considered decision in 1959 to dump his beloved rock’n’roll, which he saw to be in temporary recession, swapping his Little Richard persona (“Elston Gram”) for a folk version of himself: “Bob Dylan.” It wasn’t as if he’d arrived at this new concept by a sequence of absent-minded lapses.

Once he knew what he wanted to do, precisely how he meant to get himself heard, Zimmerman moved with astonishing speed. Shifting smartly from an early flirtation with the monumental style of Odetta, he hoovered up everything he needed from his friends’ folk-blues records, sometimes “borrowing them without permission” by the arm-load. But his first real stroke of luck was meeting singer-guitarist Spider John Koerner on campus in Minneapolis.

Three years his senior, Koerner was a former student who’d got into folk guitar in 1958, had an epiphany, dropped out, and driven aimlessly around America for a year, living the extempore road-movie life of pioneer Beats Jack Kerouac and Neil Cassady. How far Dylan borrowed from Koerner and how far vice-versa is moot; certainly, Koerner’s style and Dylan’s early sound bear a more than casual similarity. As for Kerouac’s On the Road, that came to Zimmerman (now calling himself Bob Dylan) from Minneapolis hipster Dave Whitaker. As soon as he’d read this cult novel, Dylan saw what he had to do. Rather than go home to Hibbing for the summer vacation, he hit the road to Denver, seeking experience, and further brains to pick, in that city’s folk scene. (Five years into his career, he would cryptically salute the adventures of Kerouac and Cassady in ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’.)

In Denver, he found Judy Collins singing ‘Maid of Constant Sorrow’ – thangyew! He also discovered singer-guitarist Jesse Fuller, playing carnival harmonica in a neck-harness – taxi! Arriving back in Minneapolis a short while later (having quit Denver at speed in connection with items “borrowed” from someone’s record collection), he was handed Woody Guthrie’s autobiography, Bound for Glory. The penny dropped, big time. Within weeks, “Bob Dylan” was Woody Guthrie – and, to do him justice, he got extremely good at it in amazingly short order. The antidote to any simple-minded kleptomaniac theory of Dylan is this: from a standing start in two-and-a-half years, he turned himself into the most convincing and compelling folk performer in America. Only genuine musical talent, creative ability of the highest order, and formidable self-belief could pull that off.

The carefully studied counterfeit character who turned up on November 20, 1961 at Columbia’s studio A in Manhattan to record his debut album, Bob Dylan, was anything but a simple fake. Rather he was the real thing in folk-drag, made powerful, indeed unforgettable, by his innate resources of artistry and personal intensity – the deep feeling which drove him then and still does today. The propulsion in his style came from R&B and rock’n’roll, but its inner integrity was inescapable.

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