REVIEW OF BOB DYLAN, THE BOOTLEG SERIES Vol. 15, TRAVELIN’ THRU

Bob Dylan’s long-running Bootleg Series reaches its Volume 15 with the release of a collection of essential material from the period 1967-1969, featuring Johnny Cash on a majority of the tracks and chronicling the first part of Bob Dylan’s ’country period’ (the second part was earlier visited by Volume 10 – Another Self Portrait, released in 2013). Unlike some of its predecessors, Volume 15 is a relatively brief affair, clocking in at 3 CDs (or vinyls) and with no variants – so this time round, no deluxe editions or limited-issue discs! The set comes with a 54-page booklet with full track listings and appreciations by Ben Rollins, Rosanne Cash and Colin Escott. It also has the seal of approval of the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa.

                             

The three discs muster a total of 50 tracks, of which two are brief spoken-word interludes, leaving 48 of music, of which 19 are credited to Bob Dylan alone, 25 to Dylan and Cash and the remaining 4 to Dylan and Earl Scruggs. Three tracks have had prior release (one, an alternate version of ‘Lay Lady Lay’, only very limited); the remaining 45 are making their official debut. There are two ‘new’ Bob Dylan originals, ‘Western Road’ and (with Cash) ‘Wanted Man’, and a goodly number of cover versions (Dylan/Cash or Dylan alone) of folk or other standards and classic Cash compositions, enriching the ever-growing roster of songs officially covered by Bob Dylan.

The set consists of: 7 outtakes from the John Wesley Harding sessions (1967, Dylan); 8 outtakes from the Nashville Skyline sessions (1969, Dylan); 25 tracks from the 1969 Dylan/Cash sessions in Nashville (one of them ‘Studio chatter’ from Cash); 3 tracks from the Johnny Cash TV show of 7 June 1969  (2 Dylan / 1 Dylan/Cash); 2 outtakes from the Self Portrait sessions (1969, Dylan); and 5 tracks with Earl Scruggs (one an interview with Scruggs), recorded at a New York private house in May 1970 (hence a shade outside the set’s advertised timeframe). There is a slight overlap with Another Self Portrait in the form of an outtake of ‘I Threw It All Away’ which appeared on that album, while the two Self Portrait outtakes, though not on that collection, could of course have featured there. Notably, for the John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline sessions there is only one version of each featured song; this set thus diverges from the completist approach that characterised the mastodontic The Bootleg Series Volume 11 (The Cutting Edge) or the recent (non-Bootleg Series) 14-disc Rolling Thunder Review retrospective. The contents of the set are inevitably not all of the same quality, but everything included is, at the least, interesting and, at best, superb.

John Wesley Harding is one of Bob Dylan’s very greatest albums, and its metaphysical profundities need no introduction. Its successor Nashville Skyline, if less ambitious, has stood the test of time and is regarded as a country-rock classic – indeed, it could be called a great Hank Williams album not by Hank Williams. The outtakes for the two that surface here will have been eagerly awaited by many, but do not in fact add a vast amount to the songs. For John Wesley Harding, there are some tempo changes – ‘As I Went Out One Morning’ is taken slower than on the album, ‘I Pity the Poor Immigrant’ faster, and while there are a scattering of minor lyric variations, there is really only one to write home about, namely on ‘I Dreamed I Saw Saint Augustine’. The last verse appears as ‘Oh I awoke in anger, without a place to stand or hide’ – as opposed to ‘so alone and terrified’ on the album version, and also to ‘so alone and mystified’, a lyric change which recently emerged on the Rolling Thunder compilation. Of the three variants, I suggest that ‘alone and terrified’ remains the best, connecting with the motif of fear that occurs elsewhere in the album. Only seven of John Wesley Harding’s 12 tracks are represented: there is no work-in-progress to illuminate the enigmatic ‘Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest’, while according to Colin Escott’s notes no alternate versions exist of the two closing songs that form a bridge to Nashville Skyline, ‘Down Along the Cove’ and ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’. For Nashville Skyline, the set offers variants of almost all that album’s tracks, but again the musical or lyrical variants are not major. The one ‘new’ song from the sessions which appears, ‘Western Road’, was left off Nashville Skyline – wisely, as while a competent blues it would not have been a fit with the album’s register.

The Dylan/Cash sessions, laid down for an album that never was, are the set’s centrepiece. Some tracks are frankly best forgotten but others are magnificent. Certain experiments – Dylan singing ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’ simultaneously with Cash intoning ‘Understand Your Man’; a pair of Jimmie Rodgers medleys on which neither Cash nor Dylan manages to yodel convincingly – are scarcely listenable. By contrast, Dylan and Cash together offer superb readings of a whole series of Cash evergreens (‘I Still Miss Someone’, ‘Big River’, ‘I Walk the Line’, ‘Ring of Fire’ and more), two unquestionable Dylan classics (‘One Too Many Mornings’ and ‘Girl of the North Country’ – the latter song being of course featured on the released Nashville Skyline), and standards including ‘That’s All Right, Mama’, ‘You Are My Sunshine’, ‘Just A Closer Walk With Thee’ and a medley of ‘Mystery Train’ and ‘This Train Is Bound for Glory’. Of particular interest are ‘Ring of Fire’ and ‘I Walk the Line’: the former, which appears twice on this set, would later feature in a version by Dylan on the soundtrack of the 1996 film Feeling Minnesota, while the latter is invoked by Dylan in Chronicles, Volume One as an inspiration for his own masterpiece of 1989, ‘Man in the Long Black Coat’. The two also duet on the Dylan composition ‘Wanted Man’, marking the official debut in a version (co-)performed by Dylan himself of the song which Cash would later feature on his classic live album Johnny Cash At San Quentin. However, this version is incomplete and, while it starts strongly, fades away into confusion and is best considered a rehearsal, with Cash’s San Quentin performance remaining the definitive version of this slice-of-Americana song.

Of the remaining, more heterogeneous tracks, by far the best are the two Self Portrait outtakes, both featuring Cash classics. Dylan excels himself vocally on both ‘Ring of Fire’ and ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, and musically the two tracks are on a level with the best of Nashville Skyline: they would indeed have been enrichments for Self Portrait. The three live tracks from the Johnny Cash Show also sound fine, with Dylan’s ‘Living the Blues’ anticipating Self Portrait. The Dylan/Earl Scruggs material, however, sounds a shade throwaway, perhaps reflecting the private-house venue: if the traditional ‘East Virginia Blues’ manages to convince,, the throwback to the Free-Wheelin’ album, ‘Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance’, comes over as sketchy. The 50 tracks come to an end with a (previously released) version by Dylan and Scruggs of Dylan’s instrumental ‘Nashville Skyline Rag’ – a tribute to both the city of Nashville and to the album for which the composition was written, and thus, the listener may feel, a satisfying conclusion to a rich and diverse listening experience.

**

BOB DYLAN, The Bootleg Series Vol. 15 1967-1969, TRAVELIN’ THRU (featuring Johnny Cash), Columbia Records 2019, 3 CDs / vinyls

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