But now Bob Dylan's performance as a hobo guitarist in the BBC drama The Madhouse on Castle Street is causing a buzz among music fans with the news that the tracks are set to be broadcast again for the first time in more than 40 years.
Among the songs is a version of one of his most famous creations, "Blowin' in the Wind", months before it appeared on vinyl, and three songs that were never recorded again.
The scratchy recordings, made by TV viewers with primitive tape recorders, have been cleaned up by sound engineers. But the singer's notorious nasal delivery is unmistakable and Dylan fans have been delighted by the reappearance of the tunes, only fragments of which were previously thought to exist. The most notable is a haunting, macabre track called "The Ballad of the Gliding Swan".
When Dylan landed his role in the play, he was a nobody beyond the confines of the New York coffee bar folk circuit. Director Philip Saville spotted him and thought him ideal to play a mysterious figure who locks himself away from the world. Yet after being brought over to the UK for a fee of 500 guineas plus expenses, he baulked at the idea of acting.
Mr Saville told The Independent on Sunday: "He just struck me as someone who had a few things to say about the world and I loved the way he put over his songs. I thought, wouldn't it be wonderful to match this wonderful play with someone with equally extraordinary potential. I managed to convince the BBC to bring him over. When it came to reading through the play - and this character had a lot of lines, he was very anarchic - he said, 'I can't say this, I'm not an actor. All I can do is sing songs.' I thought, 'oh great, now is the time to tell me'."
The play was quickly rewritten to divorce the singing parts from the spoken. Acting duties were awarded to the emerging RSC actor David Warner.
Dylan delivered four songs including "Blowin' in the Wind", which Mr Saville convinced him to perform in the play, broadcast on 13 January 1963. The lyrics to "The Ballad of the Gliding Swan" are largely thought to have been written by the play's author, Evan Jones, but Dylan made his own additions. The other songs are "The Cuckoo" and "Hang Me Oh Hang Me".
Now home recordings of the songs have been handed in after an appeal by the BBC and will be broadcast next month as part of a season of programmes about Dylan. They feature in an Arena documentary for BBC4, Dylan in the Madhouse, which traces the story of the production. One of the recordings was made by Hans Fried, who used an early Baird reel-to-reel tape recorder to preserve the songs after holding a microphone in front of one of the TV speakers. "The quality was surprisingly good," he said.
He had previously struck up a conversation with Dylan after they met in the folk and jazz shop Collets in London's New Oxford Street. "I didn't know who he was at the time. He was standing in the shop and I had a Robert Graves book, The White Goddess, under my arm and he thought this was so interesting. We ended up talking about it at great length, and he said it was a great influence on him."
The tape went into a box, where it remained until recently when it was passed on to Dylan chronicler Ian Woodward, who in turn made it available to the BBC. Another rough tape was made by schoolboy Pete Read, which has also been handed to programme-makers.
While in the UK, Dylan visited a number of British folk clubs including the Troubadour in Old Brompton Road. Mr Woodward said: "His brush with the British folk scene had an enormous effect on his songwriting and he went on to write a number of songs shortly afterwards which were clearly influenced by his time in London."
Madhouse forms part of a Bob Dylan season on BBC4 to complement BBC2's two-part Arena documentary No Direction Home, directed by Martin Scorsese.
Arena's editor, Anthony Wall, said: "To have found these songs is much more than I thought we would ever get when we made our appeal. But I still can't believe that somewhere there isn't some footage and I'm still hoping we will find some."
John Baldwin, of the Dylan fan organisation Desolation Row, said: "Many of even the most fanatical fans will not have heard these songs, certainly not of the quality we are expecting from the broadcast, and we expect this to be very big."
'Arena: No Direction Home' is on BBC2 26 and 27 September; 'Arena: Dylan in the Madhouse' will be shown by BBC4 in late September. Producers are still keen to find any footage; contact Arena, BBC, 1 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JA.
THE BALLAD OF THE GLIDING SWAN
Tenderly William kissed his wife.
Then he opened her head with a butcher's knife.
And the swan on the river went gliding by.
Lady Margaret's pillow was wet with tears.
Nobody's been on it in twenty years.
And the swan on the river goes gliding by.
The swan on the river goes gliding by.
Little Billy Brown will shake with fright.
He's got a new daddy and mommy every night.
And the swan on the river goes laughing by.
The swan on the river goes laughing by.
"I've got a sad surprise" the doctor said.
"A twenty-pound baby without any head."
The swan on the river went lookin' ...Reuse content