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25 Years Ago: Bob Dylan Opens His Vaults for ‘The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3′

Express Newspapers, Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Express Newspapers, Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Bob Dylan‘s history with bootleggers is almost as long and as legendary as his career. The very first rock ‘n’ roll bootleg album, 1969’s The Great White Wonder, collected various unreleased Dylan songs spanning apartment recordings from 1961 up through the unreleased-at-the-time Basement Tapes.

Over the years, Dylan fans — among music’s most passionate — were treated to everything from sketchy-sounding live performances captured at some New York City coffeehouse during his early days to studio-quality outtakes from the 1965-66 sessions that yielded three of his best albums to ’80s concert recordings that went out of their way to prove that their generation’s greatest singer-songwriter didn’t totally suck for most of that decade.

At the tail end of his most damaging period (and an era that yielded some of his all-time worst records), Dylan released Oh Mercy in 1989, a comeback of sorts that made the ’90s wide open for rediscovery. So on March 26, 1991, he dug into his vaults for The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991, a three-disc set that gathered 58 songs dating back to November 1961 (a home tape recording) and running through a recent outtake from Oh Mercy.

And the results were everything a Dylan fan could hope for: excellent sound paired with an equally excellent track selection that covered all eras. Is Dylan the folksinger your thing? There are eight leftovers from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Like him better when he plugged in and rocked out? There’s a bunch of outtakes from Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. More into his religious period? Some of those songs are here too. As are cuts from his other guises over the years: country singer, spiteful lover, rock ‘n’ roll caravan ringleader, you name it.

Many of the best songs on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 were well-known to Dylan collectors, but they never sounded this great before. Tracks like the protest number “Let Me Die in My Footsteps,” the Blonde on Blonde leftover “I’ll Keep It With Mine” and “Blind Willie McTell,” a great unissued song from 1983’s Infidels, rank right up there with his very best songs.

Arranged chronologically and compiled by Jeff Rosen, who also worked on Dylan’s 1985 groundbreaking box BiographThe Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 ends up painting a pretty complete picture of one of popular music’s most influential and greatest artists. He’s tentative at first, working through a Woody Guthrie fixation on the pair of outtakes from his self-titled debut album. By the time it unwinds to the handful of Infidel session leftovers, Dylan has surpassed his legend status and is moving on to yet another phase of his long career.

Unlike other sets in The Bootleg Series (a dozen have come out through 2015, including a collection devoted to unreleased material recorded after Volumes 1-3‘s release), the first set gives each disc its own volume. It’s also the most wide-ranging, comprising three decades. And it’s the most essential. The album made it to No. 49 and has since gone gold. It’s a significant part of Dylan’s catalog, and not only for the great music. It’s also a pivotal moment where one of rock’s most bootlegged artists finally realized the value of his scrapped past.

Bob Dylan ‘Bootleg Series’ Albums Ranked Worst to Best

Next: Top 10 Bob Dylan Bootleg Albums

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