The evening of July 25, 1965 has gone down as one of the most earth-shaking moments in popular culture. Backed by the Butterfield Blues Band, Bob Dylan took to the stage of the Newport Folk Festival, plugged in his Fender Stratocaster and proceeded to serve up 17 minutes of amplified rock‘n’roll. There were boos and jeers. And a palpable sense of shock. Folk music’s dashing young prophet, it seemed, was forecasting a future that the purists found unbearable.
Elijah Wald’s magnificent Dylan Goes Electric! Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night that Split the Sixties, published in time for the 50th anniversary, attempts to place the occasion in its true cultural, political and historical context. Here are ten reasons why it mattered:
1. Plugging in meant that Dylan effectively brought to an end the ‘60s folk revival. The purists’ horror at an electrified Dylan, the acoustic hero of the protest movement, meant that they were faced with a sudden dilemma: either go along with it or stay put. “The [Newport] Folk Festival lasted four more years,” says the festival’s co-founder George Wein, “but after that we were no longer ‘It’, we were no longer hip, we were no longer what was happening. We were just old-time folk singers.”
2. The Dylan of ’65 signalled the maturation of rock music. Like A Rolling Stone made its live debut at Newport, a six-minute single that challenged the parameters of commercial radio. Either side of the festival, he released two groundbreaking records – the semi-electric Bringing It All Back Home and the full-on rock‘n’roll of Highway 61 Revisited. At a time when albums had yet to achieve the same significance as singles, Dylan had other ideas. Newport served as notice that he’d rather make deliberate artistic choices than merely grab at the brass ring.
3. The Newport Folk Festival changed forever after that night. In an attempt to acknowledge that the music scene was changing, while also trying to preserve its traditional integrity, the festival began to expand its remit. The following year saw Chuck Berry and The Lovin’ Spoonful added to the bill. By 1968 it was hosting B.B. King, Buddy Guy and Taj Mahal, though, according to co-founder George Wein, that year’s event was saved from ruin by Big Brother & The Holding Company, fronted by Janis Joplin. They just happened to be managed by Dylan’s gaffer, Albert Grossman.
4. Not only did Newport seal a dramatic change in Dylan’s musical direction, it also altered his demeanour as a performer. Previous solo shows had seen him fully engage with his audiences – chatting, mugging, kidding around between songs. Newport found him turning his back, huddling together with the band and offering no small talk. It marked the point at which Dylan became known not for his garrulous on-stage manner but for his bloody-minded truculence. Maybe his attitude since, often playing entire shows without uttering a word, stemmed from Newport.
5. Dylan at Newport highlighted the conundrum facing every musician, especially one so closely associated with the folk world. On one hand, there was the artistic impulse to create personal, meaningful work; on the other was the importance of tradition. As Wald puts it, Newport ‘65 represented the twin ideals of the modern era: “the democratic, communitarian ideal of a society of equals working together for the common good and the romantic, libertarian ideal of the free individual, unburdened by the constraints of rules or custom.” These clashing ideals placed Pete Seeger on one side and Dylan on the other.
6. The furore over Dylan’s decision captured the tensions and conflicts of America in 1965. The issue of Vietnam was becoming ever more divisive, it was the year of the Free Speech Movement, the Merry Pranksters’ acid tests and the Watts Riots, which happened two weeks after Newport. “When Dylan shouted his electric refusal to work on Maggie’s farm,” says Wald, “it was a declaration of independence for what was not yet known as the counterculture.”
7. Newport was the point where rock music became the new folk. By plugging in, Dylan took the standards of folk, and a large proportion of its audience, with him into another realm. As the influential late DJ Charlie Gillett put it, “folk existed in a world of its own until Bob Dylan dragged it, screaming, into pop.” Elijah Wald also contends that the Newport performance marked “the iconic moment of intersection, when rock emerged, separate from rock‘n’roll, and replaced folk as the serious, intelligent voice of a generation.”
8. Having elicited both jeers and cheers during his set, Dylan returned to the stage at Newport with his more familiar acoustic guitar. He proceeded to sing a barbed version of It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue that suggested he had little interest in remaining part of a precious folk clique. It can be argued that Dylan’s Newport show marked the beginning of a new relationship between audience and performer, a confrontational approach that continued to echo through the years via Lou Reed, John Lydon, Throbbing Gristle, Nick Cave and others. Dylan later scolded a young fan for not publicly expressing her disappointment at his new direction. “You should have booed me,” he told her. “You should have reacted. That’s what my music’s all about.”
9. Dylan’s accelerated evolution, culminating in his performance at Newport, dispensed with the idea that folk singers could only be acoustic. For Jim Rooney, a country musician who held a position on the festival’s board, Dylan’s decision to plug in was “disturbing and upsetting for those of us who still hope.” Yet he does concede that Bob, in his heeled boots and high-style clothes, was “the only one in the entire festival who questioned our position. Maybe he didn’t put it in the best way. Maybe he was rude. But he shook us. And that is why we have poets and artists.”
10. The decision to combine folk and rock had an immediate effect on Dylan’s contemporaries. The Byrds had already plugged in for Mr. Tambourine Man, which topped the US charts a month before Newport. But now others crowded to cover his songs in an electrified vein: The Turtles, Link Wray, Johnny Rivers, Sonny and Cher, The Safaris, David Rose, Leroy Van Dyke and Duane Eddy, who opted to record an entire album of goosed-up Dylan instrumentals. The cover of Duane Eddy Goes Bob Dylan saw the guitarslinger surrounded by volumes of an encyclopedia titled Wisdom.
Dylan Goes Electric!: Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night That Split the Sixties can be pre-ordered now.