Fifty years ago last month, Bob Dylan sent shockwaves through the music world, appearing at the hallowed Newport Folk Festival with an electric guitar and a wailing, electric backup band. Those events have inspired raucous debate among folk and rock music fans ever since: Was Dylan’s performance the epitome of rock-and-roll rebellion, or had he merely sold out to a vulgar pop commercialism?
Todd Haynes’ stunningly surrealistic Dylan biopic, I’m Not There told the story one familiar way, but with a twist: First we see Dylan’s band with their backs to the audience; the Electric Dylan character was played by Cate Blanchett, who won an Oscar for her gender-bending performance. When they turn around to face us, they are wielding machine guns instead of guitars. A rail-thin personage in work clothes – clearly representing the folk icon Pete Seeger – proceeds to chop the electrical cables with his axe. For many in the folk music world, the day was apparently just that traumatic and Seeger’s response is often described that way. But what really happened and what did it all mean?
Now, the brilliantly contrarian music writer Elijah Wald has a new book-length account of those events, including all the heady years leading up to that crucial moment in folk and rock history. Wald is known to many as the editor/producer of Dave Van Ronk’s memoir of the folk scene, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, last discussed in this space as a central inspiration for the Coen Brothers’ 2013 film, Inside Llewyn Davis. Wald’s own revisionist histories of popular music include a book on Robert Johnson, wherein he explains how Johnson was not quite the iconic Delta blues pioneer we generally picture, but rather became one after his songs were popularized during the 1960s. In a book unfortunately titled How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll (he’s a dedicated skeptic, but not anti-Beatles), Wald revisits the story of 20th century popular music in the US, showing how what we think we know about various musical trends is often considerably at odds with what people understood at the time, and how frequently the real stories behind key musical influences simply defy popular wisdom.
In researching Dylan Goes Electric! Wald seems to have examined virtually every available interview, film clip, and concert review from the period leading up to Newport 1965, and of course added numerous interviews of his own. His account is gripping, always thought-provoking, and compels us to rethink much common wisdom about the evolution of folk and rock music. He begins with the story of Pete Seeger, the guiding light of the Newport festivals, who of course gained national fame as a member of the Weavers, shortly before they were blacklisted in 1953. However the group’s highly polished, show-business approach to folk music begat legions of imitators, who often valued showmanship over authenticity and typically lacked the Weavers’ unwavering political commitments.
When Seeger and Theodore Bikel joined with promoter George Wein to create the Newport Folk Festival in 1959, their commitment was to draw on the huge popularity of acts like the Kingston Trio and the Brothers Four to help support appearances by scores of folk traditionalists. Audiences would flock to Newport to see the most popular groups, and also be exposed to an astonishing array of traditional folk and blues styles, performed in their most authentic voices, as well as by a new generation of rather traditionalist-minded interpreters. Along with stage performances, Newport featured entire afternoons of workshops where fans and practitioners of various styles could play together and learn from each other, not to mention the countless late-night song swaps around innumerable campfires.
After just a couple of years, a new generation of singer-songwriters began to take center-stage, and of course Dylan was the brightest light of them all. Dylan first made his mark on the Greenwich Village folk scene with his singular interpretations of traditional folk and blues styles; New York Times reviewer Robert Shelton described him early on as “mopping up influences like a sponge.” But it was as an original songwriter that Dylan first made his mark on the wider culture, as more commercially palatable versions of songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” made chart-topping hits for Peter, Paul and Mary and so many others. Dylan’s political songs often reflected a unique empathy for a wide cast of characters, and more thoroughly politically-minded stars like Van Ronk and Joan Baez were quick to take him under their wing. Indeed Dylan fast became an icon of poetic authenticity in a folk scene that was often as attuned to the latest pop trends as any of today’s myriad rock subgenres.
So it was truly stunning when Dylan broke the mold and appeared at Newport backed up by members of the Chicago-based Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Or perhaps it wasn’t. Indeed electric guitars were not at all unheard of at Newport. Blues, gospel and country stars had played electric guitars many times at the festival, from John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters to Pop Staples and members of Johnny Cash’s band. The 1965 festival had earlier featured an electric set by the Chambers Brothers, and Mimi and Richard Fariña – backed by Bringing it All Back Home electric guitarist Bruce Langhorne – actually got people dancing naked in the rain four summers prior to Woodstock.
Indeed, the “British invasion,” epitomized by the incomparable popularity of the Beatles, had dramatically altered a lot of people’s tastes in music. Wald convincingly argues that versions of folk and blues classics by the likes of the Animals and the Rolling Stones often had a lot more integrity than, for example the Kingston Trio’s long run of Broadwayfied folk hits. For many popular audiences, folk music was more about its lack of rough edges than its intelligence or its politics; Simon and Garfunkel in their heyday sold more records than Dylan and the early Stones combined. And with Dylan already more popular in England than here in the States, music industry moguls even began to see him as the harbinger of a potential counter-invasion.
So what really happened that iconic Sunday in Newport? According to Wald, the first huge controversy of that weekend surrounded the Butterfield group’s earlier appearance. Apparently Butterfield’s set, part of an extended blues showcase emceed by Alan Lomax, itself seemed louder and rawer than most anything heard previously at Newport. Lomax was reportedly so irate that he literally got into a fist fight with promoter Albert Grossman, who of course also represented Dylan, Odetta, Peter, Paul and Mary, and countless other stars of the folk (and later rock) music world. Was Dylan’s electric set actually Grossman’s act of revenge? Perhaps, although electric organist Al Kooper was perhaps already en route to Newport to accompany Dylan on the closing Sunday evening of the festival. A few other things appear to be true: the band was under-rehearsed, only having played with Dylan for one late-night jam session on Saturday night. Also, at Dylan and guitarist Mike Bloomfield’s insistence, the amps were turned up very loud. Wald reports that for those sitting onstage or near the front of the audience, Dylan’s voice may have been all but drowned out by the distorted amplified instruments.
Widely available film footage of Dylan’s performance suggests an energetic and focused, albeit brief set of music, starting with a rousing and rocking version of “Maggie’s Farm,” which had already been performed (acoustically) that weekend by Richie Havens. On both “Maggie’s Farm” and “Like a Rolling Stone” Dylan’s voice is as clear and sharp as on the original recordings, but that may not have been the experience of everyone in the audience. The band – especially the traditional Chicago blues rhythm section – was not all that familiar with Dylan’s style of music, and on the third and final electric number – an early version of “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” – Wald suggests that the band began to fall apart. Were some audience members booing just because it was too loud and distorted, as Seeger suggested in several later interviews (of course there was no axe involved), or simply because Dylan had gone electric? Or was it mainly because his set was so short, albeit longer than anyone else had played that evening? When Dylan returned with a (borrowed) acoustic guitar and finished with “… Baby Blue” and “Mr. Tambourine Man,” the response was more uniformly enthusiastic. Some audience members heard hardly any booing that evening, and Wald says that various edits of the concert film appear to have boos spliced into the electric set that actually occurred when emcee Peter Yarrow insisted that there was no time for Dylan to return to the stage.
Wald’s interviewees suggest that both Dylan and Seeger were quite devastated by the experience. However Dylan apparently became quite used to being booed, describing his very mixed reception at the Forest Hills Tennis Stadium in Queens just a month later as “fantastic … a real carnival.” Barely a year later, he virtually disappeared from public stage for another eight years, reportedly due to the aftermath of a serious motorcycle accident.
So what did it all mean? Wald’s last chapter takes us on a fast-paced journey through some of the ways the music continued to evolve after that iconic Sunday night. For some folk music purists, the 1965 Newport Festival represented nothing less than the triumph of raw commercialism over the people’s music, perhaps even the displacement of the early sixties’ communitarian ethic by a strident and narrow individualism. One festival insider wrote that “Hope had been replaced by despair, selflessness by arrogance, harmony by insistent cacophony.”
But clearly there was much more to it than that. In many ways, 1965 was the key turning point from the idealistic and relatively safe (for middle class white kids) early sixties, to the late sixties era of alienation, overt rebellion and widespread urban uprisings. LBJ escalated his ground war against Vietnam that summer, and just two weeks after Newport, the Watts ghetto started to burn. No longer did anyone believe that the good people of America were ready to turn their heads and hear the cries of the oppressed. Perhaps Dylan’s Newport set was the perfect expression of the coming generational divide. It also represented a clear break between the pop sensibility of early sixties rock-and-roll and the more diverse and sophisticated rock music that followed. “The instrumentation connected [Dylan] to Elvis and the Beatles,” Wald suggests, “but the booing connected him to Stravinsky.” Perhaps, as he states, “it was the dawn of the world we have lived in ever since.” Clearly no one has told the story better.