Sean Wilentz: New Dylan Recordings Unveiled

[Sean Wilentz is a history professor at Princeton University whose books include The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln and The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008. A contributing editor at The New Republic, his new book, Bob Dylan in America, will be published in September by Doubleday.]

Columbia Records announced Tuesday that it will release in October two Bob Dylan multi-CD collections that will also be available on vinyl—the latest in a long string of new collections of old Dylan recordings. Apart from the pleasures of the music itself, they are important documents in the history of modern musical culture. Together, they trace fundamental changes in the structure and priorities of the music industry in the 1960s. Among those changes was a revolution that Dylan instigated—the demise of what had been the traditional, Tin Pan Alley world of American commercial songwriting and publishing.

The Bootleg Series, Volume Nine: The Witmark Demos, 1962-1964, is the newest of Dylan’s so-called official bootlegs of previously unreleased material. Compared to the earlier ones, The Witmark Demos seems odd, a collection of informal tapes that Dylan made for his music publisher (actually, two of them) in the early 1960s, and were never intended for the general public. The two-CD set includes Dylan’s first recordings of some of his classic songs—including “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Mr. Tambourine Man—as well as some lovely numbers, based on traditional folk themes, that never made it on to Dylan’s studio albums, among them "Seven Curses” and “Farewell.”...

“Bob Dylan almost single-handedly eradicated Tin Pan Alley,” [Artie] Mogull recalled years later, “because he was the first artist who could record an album of 10 or 12 songs and be the writer and publisher of all the songs. Previous to that, if Nat Cole recorded an album of 12 songs, 12 different writers and 12 different publishers wrote those things. In Bob's case, he wrote these great original songs, and we [and him] owned all the publishing and all the writing. It was the beginning of the end of what used to be known as Tin Pan Alley.”...

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