Bob Dylan: The Best of the Bootleg Series

Bob Dylan: The Best of the Bootleg Series

(Photo credit: Jerry Schatzberg)

[Nothing brings me joy like writing about Bob Dylan. Upon the release of the latest volume of Bootleg Series, I collaborated on this love letter with the biggest fellow Dylan freak I know: my colleague Jonas Kleinschmidt. We had fun.]

Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series is a discography entirely its own.

While many other artist’s throwaways may be considered, well throwaways, nothing could be further from the case with Dylan.

Collecting selected demos, outtakes, rarities, alternate versions and notable live performances, the Bootleg Series makes for an ever-growing companion to one of the most fabled studio catalogues of all time. Some tracks give fascinating insight into classic numbers before they were finished, others tell an alternative history what could have been. Some bootlegs hold up to the “definitive” album versions, and some go so far as to surpass them.

In celebration of The Cutting Edge 1965-1966 – the newly-released 12th volume of the Bootleg Series featuring unreleased recordings from the richest, most celebrated period of his career – we’ve cherry-picked a favorite hidden gem from each volume.

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Volume 1: “Moonshiner”

Bob Dylan recorded his version of this American folk standard in 1963, and it’s widely considered to be one of his finest vocal performances. The way Dylan holds the notes and stretches every syllable as far as his voice will go, crooning “I’ve been a Mooooooonshiner,” will take your breath away, while the soothing melody from his finger picking and signature harmonica provides a gorgeous backdrop. And notice the guitar pattern’s resemblance to the Freewheelin’ classic “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” recorded around the same time. A melancholic yet unapologetic lament from the bottom of a whisky bottle.

Also listen to: ”Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie,” “He Was a Friend of Mine,” “No More Auction Block,” “Talkin’ Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues,” “Let Me Die in My Footsteps,” “Who Killed Davey Moore.”

Volume 2: “She’s Your Lover Now”

“Yes, you, you just sit around and ask for ashtrays, can’t you reach?,” sneers Dylan on this riveting and furious Blonde on Blonde outtake. Presumably written with Andy Warhol muse, Edie Sedgwick, on his mind, it’s Dylan at his most annoyed and hostile. The song ends abruptly after the 6-minute mark, but up until then it’s a ramshackle rock and roll epic, fueled by a cathartic blast of energy that puts it right up there with other Dylan classics like “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “Obviously Five Believers,” “Tombstone Blues” and “Like a Rolling Stone.”

Also listen to: ”Seven Curses,” “Mama You Been on My Mind,” “I’ll Keep it With Mine,” “Wallflower,” “Santa-Fe,” “Sitting on a Barbed Wire Fence,” “Farewell Angelina.”

Volume 3: “Series of Dreams”

Originally intended for the Daniel Lanois-produced album Oh Mercy (1989), “Series of Dreams” is a composition of grandeur and magnificence – and easily one of Dylan’s best song from the ’80s. The production is beautiful and rich, and Dylan sings with great passion and newfound joy that’s unlike any other recording from that time in his career. Why Dylan and Lanois chose not to include it on the album remains a mystery, though it was apparently Dylan’s decision to leave it out.

Also listen to: ”Blind Willie McTell,” “Tell Me,” “Angelina,” “If You See Her, Say Hello.”

Volume 4: “Like a Rolling Stone”

“Judas!” a voice cries out. Everyone in the Manchester Free Trade Hall hears it –and so does Dylan. “I don’t believe you,” he mumbles, “You’re a liar.” He then turns to his band demanding them to “play it fuckin’ loud!” And thus they launch into an antagonizing, fury-fueled version of “Like a Rolling Stone.” The band is roaring while drummer Mickey Jones hammers away like a blacksmith. And rather than singing the lyrics, our hero screams: “Once upon a time you dressed so fine; threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t yoooooou?”

Completing Dylan’s famous transition from acoustic protest singer to electrified poet, this is a definitive performance of a song to end all songs. Rock and roll would never be the same.

Also listen to: Well… the entire album. Live music doesn’t get any better than this.

Volume 5: “Hurricane”

Recorded prior to the release of DesireVolume 5 collects live versions from three gigs during Dylan’s renowned Rolling Thunder Revue tour, which featured Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, as well as a top-tier backing band that included a young T-Bone Burnett.

Before launching into a furious version of his then-unreleased track “Hurricane,” Dylan gives a sober introduction to his now-famous ballad on the true story of boxer Rubin Carter, who was falsely imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit. “This song’s called ‘Hurricane,’” he says. “If you’ve got any political pull at all, maybe you can help us get this man out of jail and back onto the streets,” proving that although Dylan had rejected the “protest singer” label since his early days, he still knew the power of his own words in influencing social justice. His impassioned words ultimately helped get Carter’s false murder conviction overturned.

Also listen to: ”Isis,” “Sara,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “One More Cup of Coffee.”

Volume 6: “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright”

“It’s just Halloween. I have my Bob Dylan mask on,” declares a giggly 23-year old Bob Dylan in front on the audience at New York’s Philharmonic Hall on October 31, 1964. Armed with nothing but his guitar, harmonica and voice, and in an unusually chatty mood, Bob plays 19 songs over two sets, and the tone swayed from dead serious to utterly goofy.

During a version of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” he hysterically shouts the final words to each line. “Well. there ain’t no use to sit and wonder whyyyyy, baaaaabe,” he wails, as the audience roars with laughter. Just a year later he would alienate a large part of this audience by putting an electric guitar around his neck, but tonight he has them eating out of the palm of his hand.

Also listen to: Silver Dagger, Who Killed Davey Moore, If You Gotta Go, Go No (Or Else You Go To Stay All Night),” “Mama, You Been on My Mind,” “All I Really Want To Do.”

Volume 7: “Dink’s Song”

Released as the soundtrack to No Direction Home, the brilliant Martin Scorsese documentary about the first five years of Bob Dylan’s career, Volume 7 is gathers a treasure trove of previously unreleased material – from home recordings to alternate studio takes and live versions. Although Dylan famously moved to New York City in January 1961, he returned to Minnesota twice that year. The second trip, while staying in the apartment of Bonnie Beecher (who is also theorized to be the inspiration to “Girl from the North Country”), Dylan recorded several songs with a reel-to-reel on what is called “The Minnesota Hotel Tape.”

Of the three songs that have seen official release, Dylan’s version of the American folk standard “Dink’s Song” captures Bob still pure first essence as a folk revivalist in the image of Woody Guthrie. Just 20 years old at the time, the young troubadour, just recently known as Robert Zimmerman, already convincingly sings like he’s had a lifetime of hard travelled wisdom up his sleeve.

Also listen to: ”Rambler, Gambler,” “This Land is Your Land,” “I Was Young When I Left Home,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” “Chimes of Freedom,” “She Belongs to Me,” “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” “Desolation Row,” “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again.”

Volume 8: “Huck’s Tune”

Anyone who says Bob Dylan later music can’t measure up to his ’60s and ’70s heyday hasn’t been listening. Collecting Oh Mercy (1989), World Gone Wrong (1993), Time Out of Mind (1997) and Modern Times (2006), as well as several live recordings and soundtrack contributions from that period, Volume 8 is a remarkable testament to the intense richness of this period.

Written for the 2007 film, Lucky You, “Huck’s Tune” is an absolute essential in the Dylan songbook, with the masterful and idiosyncratic lyricism that could only spout from his peculiar pen.

Also listen to: Once again, you might as well just listen to the whole thing. But definitely don’t miss his breathtaking alternate versions of “Mississippi,” “Born in Time,” “Someday Baby,” and “Most of the Time,” as well as his live rendition of “Love Sick.”

Volume 9: “Tomorrow is a Long Time”

Before Dylan established his reputation as the voice of a generation, he was just a talented young songwriter with a funny voice. Volume 9 of the Bootleg Series – The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964 – collects demo recordings made for the Leeds Music and M. Witmark & Sons publishing companies, intended to sell the songs for other artists to record.

Written in 1962, but never properly recorded in the studio, “Tomorrow is a Long Time” is a gorgeous and melancholy song that has been covered by the likes of Odetta, The Kingston Trio, Nick Drake, Rod Stewart, Keb’ Mo’, Phosphorescent and, most notably, Elvis Presley. In a 1969 interview with Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner, Dylan called Presley’s version of his song ”the one recording I treasure the most.”

Also listen to: ”Hard Times in New York Town,” “Rambling, Gambling Willie,” “The Death of Emmett Till,” Man on the Street,” “Let Me Die in My Footsteps,” “All Over You”

Volume 10: “Only A Hobo”

“But wasn’t Self Portrait already a collection of outtakes?,” seemed to be the general reaction when Dylan released Another Self Portrait, chronicling the time he spent recording his two 1970 albums, Self Portrait and New Morning. Whereas the latter is considered one of Dylan’s finer works, the former is hailed as his most famous flop.

Does the world really needs outtakes from an album that clearly was some kind of inside joke? Well, yes! There is something so endlessly charming about hearing Bob Dylan at his absolute most casual and it doesn’t get any more casual, laid back and – surprisingly heartbreaking – than Dylan singing “Only a Hobo” while the gently picking of a banjo and mournfully blowing a harmonica.

Also listen to: ”When I Paint My Masterpiece,” “Went To See the Gypsy,” “Time Passes Slowly.”

Volume 11: “Folsom Prison Blues”

Long before the Bootleg Series, in the heart of his withdrawal from the spotlight, Bob Dylan and the future member of the Band holed up in a house in upstate New York to make music away from the pressures of labels, critics or the public eye. Recorded in 1967 but not initially released, seven of the songs first saw the light of day by appearing on the mysterious (and unauthorized) double album, Great White Wonder, which surfaced in 1969 and became the first notable “bootleg” album in rock history.

Columbia ultimately released the 24-song collection, The Basement Tapes, in 1975, which was elaborated further on the eleventh Bootleg Series volume – The Complete Basement Tapes – the definitive summation of all the Basement Tapes recordings. Bob and the Band’s version of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” is more of a novelty than a revelation, but it’s a fun artifact from one of the most mythologized events in rock history.

Also listen to: Coinciding with last year’s release of Volume 11, respected producer T-Bone Burnett helmed the New Basement Tapes project, which entrusted the reverent Dylan apostles Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, Jim James, Taylor Goldsmith and Rhiannon Giddens to craft new songs around long-lost Bob Dylan lyrics written during the Basement Tapes sessions. Notable tracks include “Nothing To It” (James), ”Married To My Hack” (Costello), “Kansas City” (Mumford), ”Spanish Mary” (Giddens) and ”Liberty Street” (Goldsmith).

Volume 12: “Visions of Johanna”

Last, but certainly not least, is the excellent new addition to the Bootlegs Series, The Cutting Edge: 1965-1966, which collects alternate studio takes from the sessions behind Bringing It All Back HomeHighway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde – i.e. the most acclaimed period of his career.

Though it is easy to question whether we need to hear yet another rendition of “Like a Rolling Stone,” it is precisely because these songs are so familiar that their unreleased counterparts are so interesting – giving new insight into how they sounded while still in development and leaving all sorts of room to wonder “what if” a different version had been chosen for the album over the one we know. One such examples finds the slow, enigmatic masterpiece “Visions of Johanna” turned into an upbeat rockabilly jam.

Also listen to: ”Desolation Row,” “I Want You,” “Like a Rolling Stone.”

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