Giving in the past

Legacy’s box sets and reissued classics are holiday treats for music lovers

Bob Dylan
No Direction Home: The Soundtrack

Try for the Sun: The Journey of Donovan

Johnny Cash
Cash: The Legend

Bill Withers
Just As I Am

It’s impossible for me to think of the holidays without thinking of the music that has always been part of the season’s gatherings of family and friends. For most of my life, recorded music has been the thing that I’ve relied on when deciding what to give as a token of affection and means of sharing something that permanently preserves an ephemeral pleasure.

Back in the olden days of 12-inch vinyl albums with their gorgeous, large-scale graphic arts covers and legible-to-the-naked-eye lyric sheets, just seeing an album-sized gift under the tree ensured that Christmas morning would be a memorable party. Roger Miller’s Dang Me, the Doors’ Strange Days, Cream’s Good-Bye album, Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde; perhaps not everyone cherishes Christmas memories of these classics, but I’m sure most of us can think of an album or two that brightened Christmases past.

The little 4x4-inch geegaws that pass as album art these days may not be as exciting or visually appealing as those ancient artifacts, but the enhancement and preservation of music that would otherwise have deteriorated into a scratchy, static-obscured mess makes the CD a worthy successor to the LP, at least in the audio sense. And for those of us who find ourselves going less and less often to the record cabinet and more and more often to the CD rack, the advent of archival CDs is a welcome development.

With all this in mind I recently checked out the ever-expanding treasure trove of items presented by the Legacy branch of music mega-giant Sony/BMG.

At the top of my potential gift pile is the 2-CD No Direction Home: The Soundtrack, a compilation of historical Bob Dylan tracks designed to complement Martin Scorcese’s recent documentary about the transition of America’s favorite folk and protest singer into America’s favorite and most enigmatic psychedelic poet and rock ’n’ roll rebel. Calling the album a soundtrack is slightly misleading as the CD set contains most of the same songs presented in the video, but also includes different versions of many of them and some that don’t appear at all. A few of the many highlights of this collection of gems include a pristine and chilling live version of “Masters of War” from 1963; the first-take recording of the song at the crux of Dylan’s transformational journey, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”; and a rollicking, up-tempo version of “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes A Train to Cry.”

Dylan’s mellower, across-the-pond contemporary, Donovan, is also being given a well-deserved, purple plush treatment with the release of Try for the Sun: The Journey of Donovan, a 3-CD, 1-DVD package that contains not only an encyclopedic selection of the hippie troubadours’ trippy acoustic folk-pop classics, but also a DVD-ized version of a 1970 documentary about Donovan and entourage taking a musical odyssey through the Greek isles.

I’ve got to admit that back in the day you were more likely to find me rattling the windows of my room with Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes Journey to the Center of Your Mind, but even then “Atlantis,” “Riki Tive Tave” and “Hurdy Gurdy Man” could kick Ted or the Stones off my turntable at any given moment.

If you were raised by hippies you can’t go wrong by giving them this one as a holiday gift.

And whether your folks were hippies or rednecks you can’t go wrong with Cash: The Legend, a 4-CD, 104-song collection of the late Johnny Cash’s greatest recorded moments. The biggest temptation in purchasing this set will be to just keep it for yourself and play it for whoever happens to drop by. The four CDs are assembled by self-explanatory theme: Win, Place and Show—the Hits, Old Favorites and New, The Great American Songbook, and Family and Friends. This might be all the Cash you ever need and then some, and it will almost certainly be more Cash then anyone expects to find under the tree.

For more musically astute and technologically inclined geezers, the repackaging of Bill Withers’ first album, Just As I Am, as a DualDisc with a Surround Sound remix and a DVD documentary on one side and a digital stereo recreation of this neglected classic on the other might be just the thing. Withers was teamed with soul music progenitor Booker T. Jones for this album, and the immaculately funky instrumental tracks the studio band lays down beneath Withers’ tales of blue collar love and strife are sublime, even when the string section arrangements attempt to drag the whole thing into the glue pot on during “Aint No Sunshine.”

The past is brand new—give it away.