BOB DYLAN: THE BOOTLEG SERIES VOL. 1: RARE & UNRELEASED (1961-1963; 1991)
1) Hard Times In New York Town; 2) He Was A Friend Of Mine; 3) Man On The Street; 4) No More Auction Block; 5) House Carpenter; 6) Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues; 7) Let Me Die In My Footsteps; 8) Rambling, Gambling Willie; 9) Talkin' Hava Negeilah Blues; 10) Quit Your Low Down Ways; 11) Worried Blues; 12) Kingsport Town; 13) Walkin' Down The Line; 14) Walls Of Red Wing; 15) Paths Of Victory; 16) Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues; 17) Who Killed Davey Moore?; 18) Only A Hobo; 19) Moonshiner; 20) When The Ship Comes In; 21) The Times They Are A-Changin'; 22) Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie.
With three CDs worth of material, recovered from the vaults in surprisingly pristine condition, The Bootleg Series Vols. 1-3 should arguably count as the best, quality- and quantity-wise, archival release of all time, setting a standard that no artist, to the best of my knowledge, has managed to beat so far, and is not too likely to beat in the visible future, especially since these days, artists tend to leave nothing in the vaults, piling all their goodies and crap on «deluxe» editions of their albums (and perhaps they're right — who the heck will want to bother with their leftovers twenty years from now?).
In the light of this, it makes sense to split the expected single review of this 3-CD compilation into three shorter reviews, one for each of the three volumes, particularly since all of them make good use of CD space, clocking in at just under 80 minutes each = the size of a respectable double LP. And if not double, perhaps, then at least each of these CDs potentially holds a single LP of a quality that would make it a worthwhile contender for anything that Dylan had officially released in his first prime, second prime, and post-prime periods, respectively.
Vol. 1 represents the early years — Dylan's acoustic period, from his first assured recordings made in 1961 and right down to the sessions held for his last and most «formalistic» folk/protest-era album (technically, this also comprises the first three songs off Vol. 2, but they did have to make adjustments for the CD format). Most of the tracks are studio outtakes and demos, with a few live performances of songs that did not make it onto the studio LPs (for political reasons, mostly) thrown in for good measure. Some were quite well known previously, since Dylan never shyed away from displaying all of his work publicly — ʽWalls Of Red Wingʼ, for instance, was given away to Joan Baez, and there is also a brief taste here of the 1962-64 Witmark demos that he recorded for other artists to cover — but most were probably only known to avid bootleggers, whereas the «simple» record-buying public was in for a pleasant shock. As acceptable as Oh Mercy was for 1989, what could it really have on gems like ʽLet Me Die In My Footstepsʼ or ʽQuit Your Low Down Waysʼ?
On a song-by-song basis, Vol. 1 might not stand competition with The Freewheelin', but you could easily split it into an «old-fashioned» half that would be every bit the equal of Bob Dylan and an «anthemic / satirical» half that might, perhaps, even be stronger than The Times They Are A-Changin'. ʽHard Times In New York Townʼ thematically covers the same ground as ʽTalkin' New Yorkʼ, and, although its musical form is even more derivative than the latter's, has the same teen-folksy cockiness — the man's first impression of the big city, conveyed from the provintial point of view: "...it's hard times from the country, livin' down in New York town". ʽHe Was A Friend Of Mineʼ already shows how this rather manipulative and sometimes downright cruel little guy could stir up the most humane emotions with just his guitar and vocal — the song is even more touching in its humbleness and loneliness than the so much better known Byrds cover. And from there on, the highlights just keep coming, too numerous to discuss 'em all.
It is impressive how just about every facet of classic acoustic Bob Dylan that we know and love finds some sort of equivalent here, and how they all work so well despite more or less following the same formulae. Bob's humorous/satirical side is represented by ʽTalkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Bluesʼ, a true story of an excursion boat gone horrendously wrong, and ʽTalkin' John Birch Paranoid Bluesʼ, a funny account of Bob's hunting for commies whose gag may be a little overdone, but is still well worth a chuckle. Then there is Bob the protector of the underprivileged — ʽOnly A Hoboʼ and ʽMan On The Streetʼ are poignant little tales of no-name Joes whose quiet tragism matches the best stuff on Bob Dylan. And, of course, Bob the flag-carrier for the oppressed against the system — ʽWho Killed Davey Moore?ʼ — and Bob the anthemic optimist (ʽPaths Of Victoryʼ), and Bob the rover (ʽKingsport Townʼ, ʽWorried Bluesʼ), and Bob the visionary — ʽLet Me Die In My Footstepsʼ is as powerful an anti-war, pro-freedom tune as anything he wrote back then. There is even a bit of Bob the joker (ʽTalkin' Hava Negeilah Bluesʼ — "here's a foreign song I learned in U-tah!..."), and a long, long, long bit of Bob the graphomaniac (ʽLast Thoughts On Woody Guthrieʼ — a poem recited live that has very little to do with Woody Guthrie but very much to do with us wondering how long that guy can keep it up).
Now, if you look at most of these songs long enough, you can probably figure out why most of them, for one reason or another, were left off the original official records. ʽTalkin' John Birch Paranoid Bluesʼ was said to have been left off for legal reasons (Columbia lawyers were afraid of libel suits from the John Birch Society), but, truth be told, it is less sparklingly funny than ʽTalkin' World War III Bluesʼ that ended up taking its place. ʽLet Me Die In My Footstepsʼ is proud and grand, but still not nearly as monumental as ʽHard Rainʼ, which also ended up replacing it — and so on. Since most of these songs have their counterparts, they will not provide you with significant additional insight into Dylan, although you will learn lots of interesting new trivia (such as what was the John Birch Society and who really kived Davey Moore and where the hell really is Bear Mountain). But they will give you lots and lots of extra emotional punch if you are at all into early acoustic Dylan. Furthermore, of the three volumes this is the one to contain the largest number of previously unheard songs as opposed to alternate versions — thus, its artistic worth clearly outruns its historical value, and earns it a very natural thumbs up.