A rumor about a bootleg album from Bob Dylan hit the Baltimore-Washington, DC area in the Fall of 1969. Familiarly known as The Great White Wonder, the album was supposedly two discs of mostly unheard songs recorded by Bob Dylan and members of the Hawks (or The Band). Other rumored material included a never-before heard (by the masses) version of Dylan’s tune “The Mighty Quinn” and a couple other songs in previously non-recorded versions. Rumors of the tapes with The Band had circulated for over a year and those in the know: people like Jann Wenner, editor of Rolling Stone and counterculture insider David Litvinoff in London) had heard them. Wenner even wrote a piece in a 1968 issue of his magazine calling for Coumbia Records to release the tapes as an album. I knew of one record store selling the disc. Since it was a bootleg and nominally illegal, one had to ask for the album at the counter and it cost around ten dollars, which was a couple bucks more than most other double albums legally produced.
The record store I knew was selling the album was called Empire Music and was located in Silver Spring, MD. I lived about ten miles away in Laurel—a town known for its racetrack, working class vibe and soon to be famous as the site where Arthur Bremer shot the segregationist presidential candidate George Wallace. Fortunately, a classmate at the high school I attended lived near Wheaton and was able to procure a copy of the album for me. I brought it home in the brown paper bag it was purchased in, removed the cellophane wrapping and put the first disc on. There were no markings on the cover or the discs; just a white cover and two black discs with blank white labels. I held on to my copy of the album for fifteen years, only trading it to a Dylanophile for a substantial amount of hashish in 1984. By then, the sound was quite crackly on certain cuts, but there were no major scratches. In other words, the record still sounded pretty damn good. Some of the cuts had been officially released on other albums by Dylan’s record company in the years between.
There were two “underground” radio stations in the DC area when the Great White Wonder was released. One, WHFS, played its underground format at night, featuring a show called Spiritus Cheese. The other station was, unlike WHFS, on the AM dial. Its call letters were WHMC and it played non-commercial/non-Top 40 music within an AM radio format. The primary disc jockey was named Barry Richards. Each week WHMC would list its Top 10 songs in the Washington Post next to other Top 10 lists provided by regular Top 40 stations. Being that it was the Sixties, some songs on the lists occasionally overlapped, especially when the Beatles released an album. Most of the time though, the Top 10 list from WHMC was different than those of the more commercial Top 40 stations. Both stations played the bootleg and there were a couple weeks WHMC’s Top Ten was all songs from the album.
As it turned out, the bootleg’s track list was different from the rumors I had heard. There were only six songs from the sessions with The Band. Most of the rest were from tapes Dylan made before he signed with Columbia. Many of those recording would eventually appear on albums released in the 1990s and 2000s as volumes in Dylan’s “Official” Bootleg Series. As of this writing, that series has twelve volumes, with the potential of several more eventually being released. In spite of Columbia (and one assumes, Dylan’s) efforts, Bob Dylan remains one of the most bootlegged artists, second only to the Grateful Dead. Of course, the Grateful Dead, upon realizing the number of bootlegged concert tapes of their concerts in circulation, never discouraged the practice of fans recording and trading recordings of their shows.
The Great White Wonder was the first bootleg recording of the rock music era. Although many of the songs were from tapes made before John Hammond had signed Bob Dylan to the Columbia label, the release of the album caused a fair amount of alarm in the front offices of Columbia Records. Dylan was already a cash cow for the company and his money making power would grow in the years to come. Furthermore, his presence on the label likely made it easier for Columbia to sign up-and-coming acts thanks to the prestige Dylan’s name lent it. Of course, marketing geniuses in the Columbia offices would eventually figure out the best way to beat the threat of bootlegs was to release the material bound to appear on such recordings out on their own label, hence the eventual development of the Official Bootleg Series by Columbia. Well before the creation of that series, Columbia released Dylan and The Band’s Basement Tapes in 1975; this double-disc album included the material from the 1968 recording sessions at Big Pink that appeared on The Great White Wonder plus eighteen other songs from those sessions.
To the record listener and Dylan fan like myself, the release of The Great White Wonder was both a way to obtain some more Dylan music for my collection and a means to participate in an act of rebellion against the rapid corporatization of rock music. Ultimately, that rebellion was just another form of consumption, but neither I nor the larger culture were as cynical back then. It was also a way to gain some “coolness” credits among my friends who were also into music and the counterculture of which that music was the heartbeat if not the soul..
When I finally sat down and listened to the entire two discs, I was impressed by the quality of most of the recordings, the skilled art of Dylan’s guitar-playing on the material from the pre-Columbia session, and the superreal surrealism of the material with The Band. There is a talking blues on the first disc—a ditty called “Black Cross”—about a Black man named Hezekiah Jones who was lynched not so much for his radical opinions, but for his willingness to voice them, that still sends shivers through my soul when I hear it. Then, there is a silly rap about East Orange, New Jersey, which provides a glimpse of the Dylan wit. The version of “The Mighty Quinn,” a Dylan song that was a hit for Manfred Mann, was the first publicly released version of Dylan playing this somewhat psychedelic tune—and it was worth the wait.
Yet, it is those songs with The Band that I consistently turn to whenever I listen to this recording. There are six of these songs; foremost among them are the tunes, “Tears of Rage” and “This Wheel’s on Fire.” The former, always heartbreaking and mystifying in its near perfect blend of lyric and melody, remains perhaps the best version Dylan and The Band ever recorded. The tragedy of Lear and the United States of America that this song is about has rarely sounded so harrowingly inevitable. The overreach of treble only intensifies the sense of loss and distress which defines the song’s despondency. Similarly, the wail of Dylan’s voice in “This Wheel’s on Fire” is almost equal to Hank Williams’ lonesome whippoorwill. He, too, is almost too blue to cry. All of the songs from the sessions these two were recorded at would find their way onto a legal recording, if not in the 1975 version of The Basement Tapes, then in the Complete Basement Tapes released in 2014. Indeed, almost all of the songs that appeared on this album would eventually be released as part of Dylan’s Official Bootleg Series. However, nothing can compare to the experience of listening to them for the first time in the basement of my parent’s house as part of the bootleg album called The Great White Wonder.