Why Bob Dylan’s ‘Bootleg Series’ Isn’t Just For Megafans

A primer on his alternative discography...

As Bob Dylan turns 80, it’s easy to look at his back catalogue of 39 studio albums as a clearly-mapped journey through the man’s life. Early folk recordings give way to protest songs, a turn towards the electric, an amble into country music, back out the other side with a 1970s renaissance and an ill-fated period as a born-again Christian before a period of lesser albums and hidden gems, topped off with a late-career renaissance.

This is all true, but alongside this well-worn path is a parallel discography: the Bootleg Series. The first volumes of this series of B-sides and rarities were released in 1991 to collect songs and outtakes which had long been circulating as bootleg recordings (hence the less than imaginative name). For most musicians, a collection like this would be an interesting diversion for completionists and obsessives, but nothing to write home about for the casual fan. The sheer quality and range of Dylan’s output means that this isn’t the case with the Bootleg Series though, which contains folk staples from his early career, original recordings that never made it onto albums, and alternate versions of album songs which often surpass the chosen take, or at the very least provide an entirely new take on an old favourite.

This being said, there is an awful lot of material to sift through when getting stuck in to the Bootleg Series. This can be part of the charm, but can also be quite off-putting for someone who just wants to press play and enjoy themselves, rather than digging through the…less impressive tracks on offer.

With that in mind, here are five of the best bootleg boxsets to help you hit the ground running…

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Volume 9: The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964

The Witmark Demos are the closest to a ‘traditional’ B-side and rarity collection as you’ll get from Dylan. A lot of them are alternate versions of rarities already released previously, and many tail off as a young Bob Dylan curses himself for forgetting verses or fumbling his parts. It’s not going to interest many casual fans, but it provides a heart-warming feeling of a time when Bob Dylan was just another New York folk musician, rather than a living, breathing, Nobel Prize-winning legend.

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Volume 14: More Blood, More Tracks (1969-1971)

'Blood On The Tracks' is one of Dylan’s more standalone albums, with little either side of it which approaches a similar sound. What this collection does is to bulk that period out with alternate versions and slower, more intimate takes which bring the lyrical storytelling to the forefront.

To add to these parallel recordings, there’s an additional gem that needs to be heard by any fan of 'Blood On The Tracks' – ‘Up To Me’. Left off of the album at the last minute, this is a fully realised addition which is at least as good as the songs which made it onto the final release. A lot of the Bootleg Series have charm because of the rough edges to the songs, but here you don’t even have to work to imagine what the song could be like given the full studio treatment.

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Volume 15: Travelin’ Thru, 1967-1969

While alternate takes of songs from 'John Wesley Harding' and 'Nashville Skyline' are good fun, the real draw here is nearly 20 tracks recorded with Johnny Cash. Most are charmingly shambolic, with both men singing over one another or failing to sing choruses at the same time, but this informality just serves to heighten the feeling of spending an evening sat around the campfire with two of history’s greatest musicians.

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Volume 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Revue

One of the more straightforward Bootleg releases, this volume takes recordings from different gigs on Dylan’s 1975 tour to build a rough approximation of a live show from the period. Old classics get the biggest crowd reception, and a jacked-up electric rework of ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ feels like a completely different song to the original.

But it’s the show-stopping finale which really elevates this volume, a punchy rendition of the then yet-to-be-released ‘Hurricane’, prefaced with a plea from Dylan for those in the audience to help free Rubin “Hurricane” Carter from jail. It’s a much less restrained version than the one which made it onto record, and all the more powerful for it.

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Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991

The first three volumes of the Bootleg Series were released together, and are far and away the strongest of the lot. Partly this is because they cover such a wide period that the best demos and alternative takes could be cherry-picked, but it’s also because of the overview of Dylan’s career that this scope gives. Highlights include ‘Talkin’ Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues’, a tongue-in-cheek track inspired by a newspaper article about an overloaded ferry, and ‘Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie’, a heartfelt poem about Dylan’s idol, penned after his death. Social commentary as powerful as any released on his albums is also here, with the gut punch of ‘Who Killed Davey Moore’ lingering in the mind long after the song ends.

This release is frontloaded with tracks from the early days when Dylan was covering folk standards and writing songs at such a pace that classics were routinely left off albums, but ‘Seven Days’, a live recording from the mid 70s, shows that there are still some absolute gems later in Dylan’s career that for whatever reason, he decided didn’t deserve a place on a studio album.

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Words: Jake Hawkes

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