Bob Dylan’s “Travelin’ Thru, 1967 – 1969: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 15”: album review

The bootlegs are coming fast and furious now. I remember when Bootlegs 1 to 3 were strange mystical experiences, a sort of overground underground or lesser-know Dylan that not everyone listened to. We’re a long way from that now. Volume 15 looks at the period of 1967 to 1969, a weird time in Dylan’s life following a motorcycle accident and recovery, rumors swirling over a drug addiction bottoming out and a hushed cover-up. Secluded in the woods outside Woodstock, new work started to surface – stripped down; less drug-frenzied and hallucinogenic; scattered and disjointed, unlike prior releases. Some fans were disappointed, and some still are, at the left turn following that mythical set of mid 60s records. Dylan was reinventing himself, not for the first time.
Those strange records – “John Wesley Harding” and “Nashville Skyline,” to be followed by the highly derided Self Portrait and then “New Morning” – are richer than maybe first understood. For fans expecting a continuation of the line from “Bringing it All Back Home” through “Highway 61 Revisited” to “Blonde on Blonde,” or hoping maybe for a return to those dark brooding folk poet warrior days of the first acoustic albums, these records were confusing. Looked at without those expectations they are more easily enjoyed on their own merits as collections of exceptional songs.
The bootleg collections around “Self Portrait” and the Basement Tapes in particular really help to show the slow gradual searching evolution, the love of the inheritance of songs that Dylan was moving through, the pure joy of playing and trying things. Bootleg 15 is a great addition to this extra context, and it’s surprisingly good.
The 43 minute 15 track disc 1 of “John Wesley Harding” and “Nashville Skyline” session alternate versions and takes, in particular, is as good as either of those two albums. Take for example the great slower version of that truly cryptic song “As I Went Out One Morning,” or the faster and less ballad-driven version of “I Pity the Poor Immigrant.”
As regards the other two discs in the collection – those are probably more of a record for Dylan historians and collectors, than the average fan. A lot has been written about the hit-and-miss nature of the Johnny Cash sessions, and the mismatched non-harmonies and missed cues of the single track that made it onto “Nashville Skyline” – “Girl From The North Country” – is an accurate reflection of those sessions. The live performances on these discs are probably better than the rehearsals – include a beautiful rendition of “I Threw It All Away” which makes you wonder how these new songs sounded to audiences that had hardly seen a live Dylan set since the prior decade. The live “Living the Blues” serves as a decent bridge between the frenetic blues 60s Dylan sound and this early 70s country retreat Dylan. The live “Girl from the North Country” is arguably better than the version that made the album.
Is there enough here to have made an entire Dylan/Cash album, or even EP? Perhaps…
There’s a pretty decent “Ring of Fire” labeled as an outtake, and a spirited “Folsom Prison Blues” with a crazed tempo increase at the end which suggests they were having a lot of fun in the session.
Some of the other songs seem to approach the level that would be acceptable releases, but many songs feature aborted verses, jangled lyrics, odd melodic guesswork, or dissolve into laughter. While these two discs make an endearing record of the meeting of these two great American songwriting icons, it’s probably not as strong as some of the other bootleg series editions. As for the Scruggs tracks – for some of the Scruggs seems barley audible, unsure how to insert himself.

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