In an age of Marilyn Manson and Gwar, it seems almost laughable that something as small as using an electric guitar was, at one time, a revolutionary act of heresy to hear some tell it. But there was a time in 1965 when a folksy Bob Dylan took a risk, plugged in, withstood the booing, and helped to usher in the beginnings of a whole new sound of electric sin in popular music.
The Newport Folk Festival was an annual convergence of the Hootenanny crowd in Rhode Island begun in 1959. Dylan had been a hit at both of his previous performances in 1963 and 1964. But as July ’65 came around, Dylan was beginning to experiment with a new sound, evidenced clearly on his song “Like A Rolling Stone,” which had just been released as a single to radio four days prior.
From the 1986 Shelton book No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan, a play-by-play of his set that night that stuck in the craw of the crowd:
At the festival, Al Kooper, whose session work had already impressed Dylan, was strolling about when Albert said Bob was looking for him. Dylan told Kooper he wanted to bring the “Rolling Stone” sound on-stage. Three members of the Butterfield Band were recruited: guitarist Mike Bloomfield, drummer Sam Lay, and bassist Jerome Arnold. At a party in Newport, Dylan completed his band with pianist Barry Goldberg. In a Newport mansion, Dylan rehearsed this instant group until dawn. They kept their plan secret until they walked onstage, Dylan, in a matador-outlaw orange shirt and black leather, carrying an electric guitar.
From the moment the group swung into a rocking electric version of “Maggie’s Farm,” the Newport audience registered hostility. As the group finished “Farm,” there was some reserved applause and a flurry of boos. Someone shouted: “Bring back Cousin Emmy!” The microphones and speakers were all out of balance, and the sound was poor and lopsided. For even the most ardent fan of the new music, the performance was unpersuasive.
As Dylan led his band into “Rolling Stone,” the audience grew shriller: “Play folk music! … Sell out! … This is a folk festival! … Get rid of that band!” Dylan began “It Takes a Train to Cry,” and the applause diminished as the heckling increased. Dylan and the group disappeared offstage, and there was a long, clumsy silence. Peter Yarrow urged Bob to return and gave him his acoustic guitar. As Bob returned on the stage alone, he discovered he didn’t have the right harmonica. “What are you doing to me?” Dylan demanded of Yarrow. To shouts for “Tambourine Man,” Dylan said: “OK, I’ll do that one for you.” The older song had a palliative effect and won strong applause. Then Dylan did “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” singing adieu to Newport, good-bye to the folk-purist audience.
It’s fitting as I write this on the night of July 25th, a hard-to-believe 42 years to the day of this performance. There is certainly controversy about why people were booing that night – revisionist history rages, with some saying that the booing was due solely to the poor sound quality and not the music itself. Folk music patriarch Pete Seeger has been widely quoted as saying that if he had an axe, he would have chopped the cable that night, even though he’s given varying reasons for that statement in the following years.
Hearing these performances and seeing the footage in the Scorsese documentary No Direction Home, I can lean towards feeling that there was a crackle of discontent in the air that night that I don’t think was just a PA issue. I think there’s definitely a strong argument that Dylan’s performance was an important splinter in the genres of folk and rock music that had profound and immediate implications for both. The “This Land Is Your Land” crowd went one way with the idealism and the acoustic guitars, and the rock barrelled off in another direction best summarized by Dylan himself the following year in response to the infamous heckler at the Manchester show: “Play fucking loud!”
DYLAN @ NEWPORT FOLK FESTIVAL
July 25, 1965
ZIP: DYLAN AT NEWPORT