Album Review: Bob Dylan The Witmark Demos

By Graham Reid

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Without manager Albert Grossman, Bob Dylan might never have emerged. Photo / Supplied
Without manager Albert Grossman, Bob Dylan might never have emerged. Photo / Supplied

Rating: 4/5
Verdict: The birth of a legend, and some classic songs

There's a case for saying the most important person in Bob Dylan's early career wasn't his inspiration Woody Guthrie (the folk singer he travelled to New York to meet and whose style he adopted), nor Suze Rotolo (his girlfriend who appeared on the cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan in'63) or even Joan Baez (his muse, lover and champion).

The key figure - until they bitterly parted company in 1970 - was his manager, Albert Grossman, whom Dylan would sue in 1981 for unpaid royalties.

They were an odd couple: Dylan the wary, wafer-thin, emotionally cool folk-singer; Grossman a bear of a man twice his age, and a ruthless hustler. In Scorsese's Dylan bio-film No Direction Home Dylan says, "you could smell him coming". But without Grossman's business sense, bullying demeanor and street smarts - he managed Peter, Paul and Mary, John Lee Hooker and Phil Ochs, and co-founded the Newport Folk Festival - Dylan might never have emerged as he did.

"Whatever was wrong with Albert," said folkie Dave Von Ronk later, "he believed in Bob, he really did. He stuck with Bobby. His first album didn't sell and the second didn't sell very much either, [but] Albert was convinced Bobby would fly and he never let up."

It was Grossman - getting 20 per cent of Dylan's earnings and 25 per cent from recordings - who did a private deal in 1962 with the publishing company M. Witmark and Sons. They allowed Grossman to draw from a whopping US$100,000 fund to bring them talent. Grossman apparently flicked Dylan - then signed to Duchess publishing, owned by Leeds Music - a paltry US$1000 to get out of previous contract and come to Witmark.

It was win-win for Grossman (who immediately had Peter, Paul and Mary cover Blowin' in the Wind so coined it in from them as well). But Dylan won too: he got to record songs for Witmark (owned by Warners) which would be short-term money earners when covered - and were working drawings for the Freewheelin', Times They Are A-Changin' and Another Side albums.

The Witmark Demos - 47 acoustic songs including some from Duchess, only five previously released - are volume nine in the ongoing Dylan Bootleg Series and capture his growth from a wannabe-Woody (Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues) to a gifted, original artist.

It's easy to focus on the social-conscience songs (Blowin' in the Wind, Masters of War, Hard Rain, Times They Are A Changin') but here too are moving love ballads (Girl From the North Country, a more raw Tomorrow is a Long Time and Don't Think Twice - written after Rotolo left for Italy; proto-rock blues (Baby Let Me Follow You Down), the singular Mr Tambourine Man and the almost rockabilly-folk of Baby I'm in the Mood For You.

Despite the narrow musical range - one man and a guitar mostly - the emotional breadth and stylistic diversity is impressive. For all his faults, Albert Grossman (who died in 1986) knew that of all those he was circling, Bob Dylan was the rarity. Here's the early, one-take evidence.

-TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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