First Listen

First Listen: Bob Dylan, 'The Witmark Demos 1962-1964'

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cover art for Bob Dylan's 'Witmark Demos'
courtesy of Columbia/Legacy

After listening to the nearly 50 songs on The Witmark Demos 1962-1964, it slayed me to think that Bob Dylan wrote and recorded these songs before he was even 24. It's one thing to write "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" or "Blowin' in the Wind" by that age, but add "Ballad of Hollis Brown," "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues," "Boots of Spanish Leather," "Mr. Tambourine Man" and other bits of genius to the list, and it really hits hard what a phenomenal talent Dylan was at such a young age. Sure, many of them were riffs on other folk songs, but they were topical, courageous, surreal and sometimes damn funny.

Most of the recordings on The Witmark Demos 1962-1964 were made for the M. Witmark & Sons publishing company. Artists would record their songs for publishing companies so they might be heard by other artists wishing to cover their songs, or maybe for TV or movie use.

Witmark had a small 6x8-foot studio, and it's there that these songs were recorded and then transcribed into sheet music. So what you get is a fairly relaxed and young Bob Dylan playing his newest songs at the time. You hear flubs, forgotten verses, inspired playing and brilliant songs. Many of these tunes you already know, even if you're just a casual Dylan fan. But you've probably never heard "Mr. Tambourine Man" on piano, or the roughly 15 songs never released in any official form.

And you get to hear Dylan grow from a Woody Guthrie-inspired folksinger to a songwriter and vocalist with a voice that becomes his own. Remember that Dylan's first album only contained a few of his own tunes. At this time, he was coming into his own as a songwriter, and it's fascinating to hear that evolution here.

Hear an exclusive preview of almost two dozen of NPR Music's favorite tracks from the two-disc set until the release of The Witmark Demos 1962-1964on Oct. 19. Please leave your thoughts on the recordings in the comments section below.

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First Listen