Looking at and listening to the gristled, gnarly Bob Dylan in recent years, you could be forgiven for forgetting that he was once the brightest new voice in American music, a maverick who rewrote the rules on music publishing and almost single-handedly invented the term singer-songwriter.
Even a cursory listen to this double-CD compilation of early demos and excerpts, however, provides an intriguing glimpse into both the forcefulness and drive of his songwriting and, perhaps more surprisingly, his more playful side. As well as the powerful social commentary of ‘The Death Of Emmett Till’ and ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’, there’s the tongue-in-cheek ‘Walkin’ Down The Line’, the hilarious ‘I Shall Be Free’ and the wonderfully comic ‘All Over You’, with Bob’s intro of “let’s just put this down for kicks”. Indeed, the little clips of Dylan’s conversations with the sound engineers are often as funny or revealing as the songs themselves, such as his dismissal of ‘Let Me Die In My Footsteps’ as a “drag”.
From embryonic versions of songs that have become true classics like ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’ and ‘Masters Of War’ to fragments of lesser known work like ‘Man On The Street’ and ‘Tomorrow Is A Long Time’, this is a vivid snapshot of Dylan’s songwriting talent at its rawest, as he swerves from Woody Guthrie-era folk to unrefined blues and crackling country. With 47 tracks to choose from, highlights are many, including the astonishing piano-gospel version of ‘’The Times They Are A-Changin’’, the yearning ‘Boots Of Spanish Leather’, the plaintive ‘Farewell’ (which owes a sizable debt to ‘The Leaving Of Liverpool’) and the tap-along hoedown that is ‘Rambling, Gambling Willie’.
The sound quality, as you’d expect, veers from pristine (often of a higher standard than the original Columbia recordings) to pretty basic and scratchy – many of these demos were only meant to showcase Dylan’s compositions to other singers – but the sheer quality of the songs and energy of the performances shines through regardless, and reminds us how prolific and driven the young Dylan was.