Bob Dylan: Breaking Down The Incomplete Discography

With nine albums in eight years, Dylan has made an indelible mark on musical history

Bob Dylan laughing during press conference
Jan Persson/Redferns
November 29, 1969

Bobby Darin had three hit records under his belt when he announced his goal in life: "I want to be a legend by the time I'm twenty-five." He didn't make it, but Bob Dylan did. Searching out the sources of every sort of American music — from the rock and roll childhood he shares with his fans to the depression balads our parents might have known, from the apocalypse of Robert Johnson to the city flash of Muddy Waters, from the old testament of the Carter Family to the ageless earth of Johnny Cash — Dylan found what he was looking for, and his impact on the Sixties has been devastating and magnificent. And that impact is perhaps as much a result of Dylan's personal stance as it is a result of his music. Hard to find, hard to find out about, Dylan held back from the usual nonsense and the honest curiosity that surrounds the star and created, perhaps to protect himself, perhaps for fun, a style of resistance, allegory, irony and humor that pervaded both his songs and his appearances in public. And more than ever, the fans could not bear to be without him and musicians could not afford to ignore him. The shifts in Dylan's own musical approach brought havoc to the "styles" of more groups and performers than would like to admit it. "If I didn't dig his stuff so much I'd have to hate him," said one; "In fact, maybe I do hate him anyway." Or as Dylan put it: "I get a friend who spends his life/Stabbing my picture with a bowie knife . . . I got a million friends."

And yet in eight years he has released only nine albums. The sparing manner in which Boy Dylan has presented both his own charismatic self and his special music to the public has brought about an amazing interest in and collection of rare and unreleased songs and performances. Some search these out because they want to listen, some because they want to hold them in their hands, some because they provide The Key. For whatever the reason, it becomes clear quite quickly that far more material remains unreleased than has ever appeared on Columbia LPs. The Great White Wonder records are only a taste of it — forgotten albums from the early Sixties, demos made for publishing companies, basement tapes, session rejects, live performances and songs deleted from LPs or withdrawn from the market — all this and more indicates that the recorded history of Dylan's career has been presented in a form that has been, perhaps, tailored for its impact on us. Ironically, it has been the impression made on us by the music we have been given that makes us want to hear the rest of it.

The "discography" that follows makes no claim to be complete; it's an effort to describe music that has been put down, and the descriptions draw only from the music itself, not from songbooks or word of mouth. It is a chronicle of what is available, formally and informally: what we's missed.

Harmonica Records

In last year's interview with Sing Out, Dylan mentioned that his first recordings were made with Big Joe Williams (in an older and more obscure interview Dylan talked about his early rock and roll days — touring with Bobby Vee, and, if you choose to believe all the stories, with Buddy Holly and Bo Diddley as well — and records he cut previous to his arrival in New York). The Williams recordings came about as a result of Bob's meeting with Victoria Spivey, a blues singer who was performing at Gerde's in the Village. Miss Spivey was recording Williams and allowed the young folk singer to perform with his idol. Two cuts remain in the vaults, but two have been released on Three Kings and the Queen, Spivey LP 1004 (Williams, Roosevelt Sykes, Lonnie Johnson, V. Spivey). Recorded in 1961, issued 1964. Dylan accompanies Williams on harp for "Wichita" and provides a deep blues back-up vocal for "Sitting On Top of the World."

10 Greatest Bob Dylan Songs

"When Bobby first hit the Village he wasn't singing Woody Guthrie songs. That came later. That first time, he was into Harry Belafonte." So said an old New York folkie. Thus: Midnight Special, Harry Belafonte, RCA LSP 2449, issued May 1962, produced by Hugo Montenegro, with Bob Dylan, harmonica, on one cut, "Midnight Special."

Just before the release of his own first album, Dylan accompanied Carolyn Hester on her first and only Columbia LP. Gorgeous, but hopelessly without talent, Carolyn now heads up the Carolyn Hester Coalition, a "rock group." Carolyn Hester, Columbia CL 1796, Bob Dylan, harmonica.

Sometime in 1963 Dick Farina and Eric Von Schmidt (from "the green pastures of Harvard University . . . ") found themselves in Europe and proceeded to cut an album, "singing, shouting and playing American ballads, work songs, and blues, with Ethan Singer and occasionally Blind Boy Grunt . . . Blind Boy Grunt showed up from Rome and nobody got much sleep . . . " The album is rather wretched, but for the record, Dylan plays harp on "Glory, Glory," "You Can't Always Tell," "Christmas Island," and "Cocaine." Dick Farina and Eric Von Schmidt, Folklore Records (English), F-LEUT/7 (77 Charing Cross Rd., London WC2. Available in the U.S. at Music Inn, 169 W. 4th St., NYC, $1.98).

Finally, the old Elektra Blues Project set (not the group), EKS 7264, apparently includes Bob ("Bob Landy") on piano for "Downtown Blues." Now, with this out of the way, we can skip to 1969 for  —

Johnny Cash and the Nashville Skyline Rag

In 1969 The National Educational Television network aired a long documentary on Johnny Cash made by Granada Films. A fine show, it also included a duet between Dylan and Cash on "One Too Many Mornings." The song was widely taped, and is in wide circulation (it was part of the same session that produced "Girl From the North Country" — released on Nashville Skyline — as well as "I Walk the Line," "Wanted Man," "Big River," "Careless Love," and "Understand Your Man," among others.) "One Too Many Mornings," seems to be one of the songs that has aged best for Bob — he was performing it with the Hawks in 1966 and of course recorded it on The Times They Are A-Changin'. The Dylan-Cash version is a bit of a burlesque, especially the final choruses, which go on and on and on. The film showed Dylan cracking up as he listened to the playback.

Dylan returned to Nashville in June of this year to tape his appearance on Cash's first TV show, and included the new "Living the Blues" in his set. As just about everyone who heard it has said, the tune catches the feel of Guy Mitchell's "Singing the Blues." This too was taped by many, and was included on the Great White Wonder discs. At the same time, Dylan cut a number of other songs, including "Take A Message To Mary," the old Everly Brothers number, and "Blue Moon," backed by Doug Kershaw on fiddle. One would hope, but doubt, that Bob's version would be patterned after the Marcels' hit — but Elvis' would be alright too. And now on to what this article is really about.

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