“Now, it don’t seem to me quite so funny/ What some people are gonna do f’r money” —“Talkin’ Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues”
“You looked for work and money/ And you walked a rugged mile” —“Ballad of Hollis Brown”
“If you got a lot o’ money you can make yourself merry” —“Hard Times in New York Town”
The cover photograph depicts an artist at his craft. The signs of subsistence and the minimal provisions of the starving artist: a lukewarm cup of coffee, an empty bottle of wine, packs of cigarettes, a draftsman’s table, and a typewriter. It’s a bare setting. The economy of items furnishing the room speaks to the economy of sound on The Witmark Demos. But this isn’t the isolated artist creating for his own sake. This is when busking goes bust in the boom-and-bust, bubbles burst, and the artist bows to the Man. This is the artist in the market, selling songs.
Or at least that was the plan. Apparently Dylan recorded the Witmark demos (some of which are actually Leeds demos) in a process of penning, publishing, and peddling. The compositions were to be made available to other singers for production and release. It’s an ironic twist that during this same period Dylan would record his Freewheelin’ version of “Bob Dylan’s Blues” with a spoken introduction announcing: “Unlike most of the songs nowadays that are being written uptown in Tin Pan Alley… this wasn’t written up there.” Ironic, too, that this bit of capitalistic song production is — in lyrical content and sentiment — nearly akin to the Little Red Songbook.
From my estimate, 36 out of these 47 tracks deal with either (a) civil inequality, civil unrest, and collective action (political, racial, labor, or otherwise), (b) crime and corruption (gamblers, sinners), or (c) hobos, bums, and down-and-outers. The topics, therefore, range from the inequalities of American society, the unrelenting madness and injustice encouraged by the status quo, and the consequences of the structure. Even many of the love songs contain glimpses of social tumult or a man’s income in relation to his romantic longings. These songs, nearly half a century old, are as relevant as ever. They should have never been hawked to commercial singers, but delivered as broadsides to the public or as protest music to audiences (as many of them were). Active, agitated citizens should be the recipients of these songs.
The Bootleg Series releases are typically viewed as a welcome gift from the guardians of the Dylan vault. They are a boon to the bootleg collectors, the completist Dylan obsessives. The releases have nice packaging, insightful liner notes, and extensive content. But this release — a release of demos, many of which have been previously released one way or another, one version or another — feels like a “take that” gesture from the record company to the bootleggers, downloaders, and freeloaders. Basically, these recordings have already been circulated by the people who are interested in them. Columbia’s message is clear: Buy it again.
What’s Columbia’s motivation? Profits, obviously. If it weren’t obvious enough, note what’s next on the docket: The Original Mono Recordings, a nine-CD or nine-LP (your choice) set including no new material. Consider this Columbia’s answer to Dylan’s Christmas album. Counter creativity with commodification. The LP box set checks out at approximately $200. (Merry Christmas from Columbia!) Dylan has said his early recordings (his first four and a half albums) are like demos. This is his justification for rearranging and reinventing his songs on tour — they were never finished products. Conversely, the record company finishes everything. The record company’s products are readied to be stocked on the shelves.
But what Columbia doesn’t recognize is that the process is continuous, the circulation unremitting. Dylan’s concerts are some of the most thoroughly bootlegged. His daily reinventions, like the Witmark demos, will be bootlegged, downloaded, and disseminated. The record company will never catch up. It’s this process that lives up to the ideology Dylan sings about on the majority of the Witmark songs. Music as both an abstract and material medium will remain in our cultural commons. The art is available to all and without a profit motive.
It’s an age-old error amplified in our modern market: Is the microphone a means of projecting sound or a means of recording it? That is, do microphones create beauty/art or manufacture products? The Witmark Demos stands as another example of the crisis of art in the market. The distributive method of the product fails to match the content of the musical recording. Conversations concerning Dylan’s message of activism, the corruptive power of money, and the poverty and homelessness created by capitalism are tabled in favor of conversations revolving around packaging, restored sound quality, and Dylan “finding his voice.” We should be finding ours.