So what’s the deal with all these clandestine Bob Dylan compilations sneaking onto the internet these days? Is it a case of the most bootlegged artist in history once again being swindled by those cashing in on songs that weren’t meant to see the light of day?
Actually, the answer is probably more mundane than all that. It’s likely that Bob’s camp is quietly putting out these collections to circumvent European copyright law, preventing his songs from entering the public domain by giving them a perfunctory release. He did it at the start of the year with a mostly web-based release of The 50th Anniversary Collection, which contained 86 outtakes, alternate versions, and live tracks from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan era, earning the cheeky subtitle The Copyright Extension Collection, Volume 1.
Although Have A Light, released a few months ago, came out with no fanfare whatsoever and is currently available only in an MP3 format, it seems like it’s of the same ilk as the album mentioned above. Have A Light contains 24 odds and sods, only this time it’s focused on the era surrounding Dylan’s self-titled 1962 debut album. All 14 tracks from that album are here in some way, shape, or form.
The tree-falling-in-the-woods release doesn’t change the fact that Have A Light is available to anyone with an internet connection at a fetching price, considering it has two discs worth of songs. It’s best to think of it as an extended reissue of the debut album, and, as such, it’s a good way for diehard fans or even casual newcomers to dive into a part of his career that’s largely overlooked.
After all, it was Freewheelin’ that contained the first batch of classic Dylan songs, including “Blowin’ In The Wind,” “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna-Fall,” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” among others. The debut contained just two originals: the jokey “Talkin’ New York” and the earnest tribute to Bob’s folk predecessors “Song To Woody.” The other 12 songs were cover versions, so people obsessed with Dylan’s songwriting tend to overlook them.
That’s a shame, because what Have A Light displays is a young man with a stunning grasp of song interpretation. It’s quite amazing the power that Dylan could conjure up with just his guitar, harmonica, and vocals, even at that tender age (he was 20 when the Bob Dylan album was released in 1962.)
Have A Light provides many excellent examples of this potency. Dylan makes you believe that he’s being pursued by the Grim Reaper in “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” while the intensity he manages on “In My Time Of Dyin’” couldn’t be matched by a full orchestra. His version of “House Of The Risin’ Sun” doesn’t go for catharsis like The Animals famous take; Dylan instead wallows in a lower register as if he’s prepared to dwell in the God-forsaken home forever more.
Dylan could change gears as well, as proven by some of the interesting extra tracks found on this compilation. “Long John” features no guitar, just Dylan making his harmonica sound alternately like an approaching train and small animals. “Mixed Up Confusion,” an early single release, is given a crazed rockabilly reading here that makes some of the stuff on the mid-60’s electric albums sound tame by comparison. He also does his best to imitate idol Hank Williams on “(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle.”
Have A Light does include a couple songs that come from subsequent albums. “Bob Dylan’s Dream” from Freewheelin’ is included here under the title “Dreamed A Dream.” It’s just a demo but Dylan’s desolate howl is still piercing. There’s also an outtake of “Corrina, Corrina” that shows his voice emerging from the gruff, hobo growl he perpetrated in the early days into the hipster lilt he perfected a few years down the road.
This is by no means an essential compilation. Many of the familiar songs hew pretty closely to the originals, while the previously unreleased tracks are covers that don’t light the world on fire. The exception would be closing track “Makes A Long Time Man Feel Bad,” where Dylan inhabits the song’s loneliness with the same kind of commitment he would bring to his own forthcoming original ballads. Have A Light may have been released under mysterious circumstances on which we can only speculate, but it nonetheless gives us a comprehensive overview of the building blocks on which Bob Dylan would construct his songwriting empire.