July 26, 2007

Memorable Moments in Music: Dylan leaves the folkies dumbfounded, plugs in at Newport

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!

July 25, 1965

Maggie’s Farm
Like A Rolling Stone
It Takes A Lot To Laugh (“Phantom Engineer”)
Mr. Tambourine Man
It’s All Over Now Baby Blue



  • Kick out the jams girl! This,George and Bruce!

    I’ve been going nuts listening to those.

    nick bahula is dead — July 26, 2007 @ 1:37 pm

  • This is a moment that changed the course of music. A Beatles, Elvis, Hillary Duff (just checking) moment. It’s thrilling to watch it on tape.

    Dylan, Waits, Dylan, Waits – don’t ever make me choose.

    Thank you for my Daily Dylan

    debs — July 26, 2007 @ 4:01 pm

  • I met Bob Shelton once or twice as he was working for the same newspaper as my sister in Brighton in the late 1980′s.Nobody around him really knew how extraordinary his life had been or that they were having a beer with the man whose review played such an influential part in launching Dylan’s early career.I still find this haunting,today.

    Dylan’s is Shakespeare,really.The moment in ‘Don’t look back’ where he tests out Donovan is so striking because the difference between just beeing good at something and touching heaven is so profound and jaw dropping that it leaves you hypnotised.The Newport crowd was equally frightened by that power.Another great moment in the Scorces do occurs as a similarly torn and bespectacled group of English youths complain about the band and one passerby comments:’You’ve raelly seen better?’

    I think, with my whisky tonight,I’ll toast both Bobs – the one who was instinctively gifted and the one who instinctively recognised that gift,spending over half his life struggling to find the words to apostrophise the light he had seen so wildly burning.

    To Mr.Dylan AND Mr.Shelton.

    russell — July 26, 2007 @ 4:33 pm

  • Thanks!
    This concert really was one of the most important moment.


    Anonymous — July 27, 2007 @ 12:55 am

  • It’s important to remember that electric rock music was nothing new at the time. Two years prior the Kingsmen had recorded “Louie, Louie,” the Sonics were already driving ahead with their aggresive brand of garage rock, and, of course, the Beatles electric-pop sound dominated the nation’s consciousness. But what made Dylan’s plugging-in so significant was that not only was he going against his folk roots, but he was also bring socially conscious content to a genre that up until then had been dominated by sentimentalism, a la “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” While the British Invasion allowed a mourning nation (JFK) to forget about its worries, Dylan stepped in and reminded them, once again, that the times are still a-changin’.

    Larry Bird — July 28, 2007 @ 2:43 am

  • I want to hold your hand is not ‘sentimental’ but essential.

    russell Hall — July 28, 2007 @ 5:11 am

  • ‘I want to hold your hand’ is not sentimental but essential.Doh!

    russell — July 28, 2007 @ 5:12 am

  • The onstage rehearsal footage of Dylan, Kooper, Bloomfield, Arnold, Lay and Goldberg – shot in daylight by Murray Lerner, some of it in his film ‘Festival’and also used briefly in No Direction Home – rather gives the lie to the story that nobody in Newport knew what was going to happen that night. Peter Yarrow can be seen and heard setting up the sound and giving instructions to the musicians. This is one of those seminal moments which even the participants and observers who were there seem to imbue with even more mysterious mythology, a different account seeming to come from every witness. Dylan seems to have an ineffable talent for creating these strange, almost magical events around his ever enigmatic presence. Who was that masked man?

    anita — July 28, 2007 @ 7:54 am

  • Anita,
    I agree. He had a similar affect on global audiences. I believe that in a more fleshed out interview with the critic Robert Hilburn, the fans were actually booing him outside his room (“disappointment”). Here’s a brief recollection from Hilburn expressing a similar dynamic.

    “Bob Dylan in Israel (1987)
    This two-city swing was Dylan’s first shows in Israel and, thus, widely viewed as the most significant rock concerts in the young country’s history. But there was much disappointment in the opening show in Tel Aviv because the audience wanted to hear the classic hits and Dylan stuck pretty much to the assortment of less familiar numbers he used on recent U.S. dates with the Grateful dead. In his hotel room the next day, he was curious about the reaction to the show. He didn’t seem concerned when told the crowd was disappointed by the song selections. “You don’t want to just get up there and start guessing with the people what they want,” he said. Still, he asked what songs they might want to hear. I wrote down several titles on a piece of paper, starting with “The Times They Are a-Changin.” On the following night in Jerusalem, he and the band opened with that song-and the crowd went wild.”

    debs — July 28, 2007 @ 9:38 pm

  • i was there for his return in 2002 (back then i went to newport every yr as i love the festival, it was a special treat uncle bob was playing.) The crowd was pretty lame – except richard gere and al gore were both there. i was so disappointed with that set (yes, i have seen him seven times and he was off that night, but the day he plugged in was amazing.

    Uppity Disability — July 29, 2007 @ 6:15 pm

  • I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind reuploading these mp3′s?

    Lena — March 3, 2008 @ 6:35 am

  • Yeah!
    I am guilty as charged as I was there in 65′. Watching our guy get strange on us, but then he brought us along and really created the Zeitgeist of Folk Rock.


    Useful Idiot — May 5, 2008 @ 1:12 am

  • Yeah!
    I am guilty as charged as I was there in 65′. Watching our guy get strange on us, but then he brought us along and really created the Zeitgeist of Folk Rock.


    Useful Idiot — May 5, 2008 @ 1:12 am

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Bio Pic Name: Heather Browne
Location: Colorado, originally by way of California
Giving context to the torrent since 2005.

"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
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