The Electric Bob Dylan
It was the night of July 25th, 1965 and Bob Dylan was about to take the stage at the Newport Folk Festival. The festival was responsible for launching the careers of many performers, including Joan Baez. Dylan himself played the festival in 1963 and 1964, launching him into the exclusive folk revivalist scene. Dylan walked out on that Sunday night with his black leather jacket and signature harmonica, but there was something different about the folk hero’s appearance. He was holding an electric guitar. There has never been a time in music history where the addition of one instrument to a live set changed all music that would come after.
That being said, there was also never a time where Bob Dylan was booed by the same people that worshiped him the two years before. There has been arguments over the years as to why the crowd booed. Poor sound quality was the reason some people attribute the raucous crowd to, including musician Pete Seeger. Seeger was reported as saying to the audio technicians to “get that distortion out of his[Dylan’s] voice … It’s terrible. If I had an axe, I’d chop the microphone cable right now.” Joe Boyd, the sound mixer for the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, said that he didn’t think most of the people were outraged, but that most enjoyed it.
This could be the case, however, I think the boos were from outraged folk fans. When Dylan took the stage with his unprecedented amped-in performance, he was viewed as a traitor to the folk genre and the audience yearned for the “old Dylan”. The guitar was a symbol to them of the mainstream, commercial music industry and that he was leaving his folk roots. As a fan of some modern indie rock, I’ve seen this happen many times. If the band has any mainstream success or changes up their style on their next record, there’s an outcry about how they’re leaving their roots and a yearning for “the old stuff”. However, I think that this pattern shows some disrespect for the artist, and means these folk revivalists who booed their former hero were maybe not true fans of Dylan from the start. Dylan was growing past his voice of a generation, protest song singing image. He was experimenting and changing, like every artist and human being does. Change can be hard to come to grips with, and there were many people during this time struggling with the electric movement: but I don’t think any transition can be faulted that leads to something as influential and perfect as “Like A Rolling Stone.”
The band that went on stage with Dylan included two musicians who had played on this recently released single, “Like a Rolling Stone”: Mike Bloomfield on lead guitar and Al Cooper on organ. They started with a blistering version of “Maggie’s Farm”, and after playing “Like a Rolling Stone.”, Dylan closed with an early version of “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” titled “Phantom Engineer.” The band left the stage to a mix of boos and claps, but were urged to come back on and play some acoustic, folk songs. Dylan complied and returned to the stage to perform two songs on acoustic guitar for the audience: “Mr. Tambourine Man”, and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” These songs were his farewell to the Newport Folk Festival, as he refused to return for 37 years. What Bob Dylan did that night, fusing his songwriting with the harder sounds of rock n’roll, helped forge the way for the new genre of folk rock. This event in combination with the release of the Byrd’s rock cover of “Mr Tambourine Man” with a 12 string guitar, pushed folk rock into popular music. It also catapulted Bob Dylan’s career into rock stardom, a position he still holds till this day.