Original copies of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, mistakenly mis-pressed with four still-unreleased tracks, are among the rarest and most valuable records in the world. A stereo copy sold for $35,000, and a mint mono copy would easily fetch $25,000, though one in that condition has never surfaced. It’s rare that a previously undiscovered copy surfaces, but I’m happy to report one just did. And remarkably we acquired it from the original buyer, who had it in his collection for 55 years.
Freewheelin’ was Dylan’s second album, released in late May, 1963. Though Dylan’s 1962 debut album featured only two original compositions, eleven of the thirteen tracks on Freewheelin’ were written by Dylan.
For reasons still not completely clear, just prior to the album’s release, four of the songs that had been planned for inclusion were replaced with four newly recorded tracks. Some speculate that because CBS television’s censors wouldn’t let Dylan perform “Talkin’ John Birch Blues” on the Ed Sullivan Show, the CBS-owned Columbia Records pulled it from the album. Others note that the four “replacement” tracks were recorded after the album was completed, and were simply too good to be left off (they included the Dylan classics “Masters of War” and “Girl From The North Country”.)
In any case, replacement masters featuring the new songs were prepared and shipped to Columbia’s pressing plants, the artwork was changed, and the label released the revised album.
Except–and this turned out to be a very big deal–someone at one of the pressing plant didn’t get the message, and a small number of copies were pressed using the old stampers, with the four songs that had been replaced. In the 55 years since the release of Freewheelin’, a very few copies have surfaced that play the four “withdrawn” tracks–only two stereo copies are known, and perhaps 20 mono copies. No one has yet solved the mystery of why so few copies escaped Columbia’s pressing plants.
I recently found what is very likely the first printed mention of the rare Freewheelin’ in the January-February 1964 issue of The Little Sandy Review, a folk music fanzine run by Dylan’s Minneapolis friends Paul Nelson and Jon Pankake. In “Jay Smith’s Column” Smith writes “I’ve talked to a few people who bought The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and got four different songs from those listed on the album. Of these “odd” copies, Girl From The North Country, Masters of War, Bob Dylan’s Dream and Talking World War III Blues are omitted while Rocks and Gravel, Let Me Die In My Footsteps, Gamblin Willie’s Dead Man’s Hand and Talking John Birch Blues are added. I wonder how many of these “collectors items” were issued…” Interestingly, Smith then writes about the Harry Belafonte album that Dylan played harmonica on.
I searched for a copy for nearly 10 years, finally buying one in the early 80’s for $1000–a huge amount for a record at the time. In 2012, I bought a second copy from an Arizona woman who discovered it amongst a box of records her late uncle had given her.
And then, a few weeks ago, I got a call from a friend of a friend, Larry (last name omitted for his privacy). Larry lived very near me, and a few days later, I was sitting in his living room, looking at his original Freewheelin’, and listening to his story. He recalled “Dylan’s first album came out while I was in high school. I didn’t know who he was at the time although I bought that album later. I started going to [U.C.] Berkeley in January 1963. At the end of semester I drove up to Vancouver with my sister and brother-in-law. At the end of June I was back in LA. I bought the album during that summer, at a record store on Pico Blvd. in West Los Angeles. This is only a guess but I probably bought after being back in LA for a few weeks. I used to listen to [radio host] Les Claypool on Saturday nights and I think I heard some of the songs that way. At the time, I was disappointed and confused that the songs listed on the cover were not all on the record, especially “Girl From the North Country’”.
Happily, I was able to buy Larry’s copy, for as we figured out, considerably more than a thousand times the original purchase price.
This is only the second copy I know of to have come from the original buyer. An acquaintance of mine, who wishes to remain anonymous, bought his copy in Berkeley, CA. in 1963. Likewise, he was disappointed that the copy he bought didn’t have the tracks listed on the cover, but also decided to keep it. I wonder if any copies were actually returned to record stores by dissatisfied customers?
Over the last 47 years, I’ve checked thousands of copies of “Freewheelin’”–but have never found an original. If you want to check yours, here’s what to look for:
Original copies have matrix numbers ending in -1A on both sides, and include these four songs: Rocks and Gravel/Let Me Die In My Footsteps/Gamblin’ Willie’s Dead Man’s Hand/Talkin’ John Birch Blues. Stereo copies list the rare tracks on the labels; mono copies list the replacement tracks. In either case, the record must play these four songs, not just list them on the cover or labels.
Regular copies have matrix numbers ending in -2 or a higher number, and include these four songs: Girl From The North Country/Masters of War/Bob Dylan’s Dream/Talkin World War III Blues. The labels list the correct tracks and the disc plays these four songs.
And one more thing: Original Canadian copies and some promotional copies of Freewheelin’ list the rare tracks on the cover or labels but play the regular tracks. For more details, check the excellent Dylan discography site “Searching For a Gem” – scroll down 1/3 of the page.) If you find one, please let me know !
This copy has been sold but you can read more about it here.
March 9, 2018