Don't forget the Bootleg Series
There’s no dearth of Bob Dylan’s music. Last year the septuagenarian, Nobel laureate, singing-songwriting extraordinaire released yet another LP. That brings him to a total of 37 studio albums, 58 singles, 11 live “albums” — some of which, such as the 32-disc "The 1966 Live Recordings," defy any conventional definition of the word "album" — another 31 compilation albums and a whole mess of collaborations. And that’s not all, as any Dylanologist worth their salt will tell you; don’t forget "The Bootleg Series."
Since its launch in 1991 with "The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare and Unreleased) 1961-1991," Columbia Records has attempted to catalogue — and who am I kidding? — to make a whole lot of money from Bob Dylan’s prolific musical output. "The Bootleg Series" now spans 13 volumes that range from folksy demos to relatively recent outtakes (even the newest songs included are now more than a decade old). For the most part, the series sticks to the early days, as only two of the 13 volumes feature music released after 1975. But even with its relatively narrow focus on Dylan’s first 15 years, "The Bootleg Series" is a sprawling — and often fascinating — glimpse into a one-of-a-kind career.
That said, I’ll admit that it took me a while to understand the appeal. I saw a collection of outtakes, alternative recordings, and unreleased songs, and asked why I would want to waste my time with music that didn’t make the cut. The guy already has, like, 40 albums, right? It wasn’t until after some extensive Bootleg[ging] that I came to admit the folly of my ways. A guy like Bob Dylan has a lot more to give than a studio album’s worth of music any given year.
Take "Volume 7, No Direction Home: The Soundtrack," for example. It’s an amazing two-disc collection that makes for a great survey of Dylan’s transition from folk prophet/“voice of a generation” to rock and roll star/“Judas” entirely using recordings that were never released. I don’t know if any of the many alternate takes are better than their studio album counterparts, but hearing these acoustic takes of electric favorites and vice versa is a pleasantly disorienting experience. Dylan’s interpretation of old folk song “Sally Gal” (which I think is only available via this collection) is a personal Dylan favorite. I wouldn’t have heard it without "The Bootleg Series Volume 7" (by the way, the Scorsese documentary of the same name isn’t half bad, either).
For those of us who weren’t around to see Dylan in his heyday, The Bootleg Series can take some of the sting away. I’m not a fan of live albums, but "Volume 6; Live 1964 Concert at Philharmonic Hall" is one of a handful of exceptions. Dylan comes across as funny and charming and weird, and his audience clearly adores him. There are some awkward fumbling, stumbling duets with Joan Baez on the second disc, but that just makes the whole thing more endearing. Besides, the audio quality and collection of songs are just top notch. The fantastic rendition of “If You’ve Got To Go, Go Now” routinely gets stuck in my head, and despite not being the best version of the song, I love this recording of “It Ain’t Me Babe.”
And there’s a lot more where that came from — 11 more volumes to be precise — and sure, at times that can feel excessive (the complete version of 2014’s "The Best of the Cutting Edge 1965-1966 vol 12" was an 18 disc collection for Pete’s sake), but too much of a good thing is a pretty nice problem to have. So if you’re interested in some “new” versions of old songs or simply getting a peek into the creative process of one of modern music’s most influential artists, check out these albums courtesy of your friendly neighborhood library.
— Ian Stepp is an information services assistant at the Lawrence Public Library.