I’m not a big fan of unreleased music–bootlegged concerts, demos, etc. Most of it has, at best, more historical/novelty value than musical value. Production values are often spotty, and songs are sometimes incompletely arranged or even unfinished.

Even with Rhino’s great reissues of Elvis Costello’s records, all of which contain copious bonus materials, the results are uneven. Some tracks show Costello’s brilliant songs bubbling up from his imagination, and some are otherwise enjoyable tracks that simply didn’t fit the original record thematically. But many are scratchy demos or live cuts that sound really bad. I usually listen only once and then delete them from my iPod.

But I just found the unreleased Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash sessions, recorded in 1969 for a Columbia studio album that was never finished. Only one track, “Girl from the North Country,” saw the light of day, on Dylan’s excellent Nashville Skyline album.

These tracks, largely, aren’t great. The mp3.com page I’ve linked to is accurate in saying that Cash does better work here than Dylan, who is off-key and out of time. (Although as I type this, “Ring of Fire” is playing, with John and Bob alternating vocals, and Dylan’s voice is in good form, so it’s not all bad.)

But, man, with guitar work by Carl Perkins, it’s fun to think about what this record could have been.

Blessed with a profound imagination, he used the gift to express all the various lost causes of the human soul. This is a miraculous and humbling thing. Listen to him, and he always brings you to your senses. He rises high above all, and he’ll never die or be forgotten, even by persons not born yet — especially those persons — and that is forever.

–Bob Dylan, on Johnny Cash


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