DYLAN GOES ELECTRIC
The Newport Folk Festival, July 1965
from Robert Shelton, No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan, New York, 1986, pp. 301-304.
At the Newport Festival in July 1965, Dylan played three songs with a rock backing and unleashed a storm of derision. From the start, Newport '65 did not augur well. Baez sported her newest protoge, Donovan, on her arm. At an afternoon workshop, Alan Lomax, folk purist, and Albert Grossman clashed openly over the way Lomax had introduced Grossman's soon-to-be clients, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Hosting the "Bluesville Workshop," Lomax, never a skilled diplomat, waxed elegiac over the panel's black bluesman. He challenged the Butterfield Band in words to this effect: "Let's see if these Chicago boys know what the blues are all about." After the Butterfield Band had played to an ovation, Grossman belabored Lomax for his patronizing introduction. Invective began to fly, and shortly the giant of folklore and the titan of folk business were wrestling on the ground. Onlookers separated the mastodons. While the scuffle had been personal, it had some theoretical roots. Lomax's concept of rock as black man's music was only resented in some folk circles.
Typically, Dylan told no more people than necessary about his plans for Sunday night. He relished the dramatic departure. He couldn't envision a backfire. Since January, his two electric singles and an album had done fabulously well. At the festival, the Butterfield Band and The Chambers Brothers this year, and Muddy Waters the year before, had shown that amplified-electric instrumentation and heavy rhythm were not taboo. It was, to Dylan, "all music, no more, no less."
In the 1965 Newport program book, I had appealed for tolerance toward folk-related popular and country music: "The middle-class collegiate audience of folk music is only a part of the music scene. The tastes, interests and social attitudes of the high-school student or drop-out, the working-class kid, must also be appreciated." I was by no means preaching to the converted, for all too many folk fans, while twisting their radio dials to The Beatles, other English rock groups, and R & B, felt their traditional music embodied the only "healthy" elements, the only "honest" verities.
To compound Dylan's difficulties, Seeger announced that the Sunday night final program was a message from today's folk musicians to a newborn baby about the world we live in. Unfortunately, this theme did not correspond to Dylan's conception of his performance. Dylan's Sunday segment was sandwiched between Cousin Emmy and the Sea Island singers, two very traditional acts. Cousin Emmy's high spot was "Turkey in the Straw." Dylan had to do his bit at the appointed spot, without a sound check for his pick-up band.
At the festival, A1 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.
Backstage, there had been almost as much excitement as out front. At the first sound of the amplified instruments, Pete Seeger had turned a bright purple and begun kicking his feet and flailing his arms. (A festival official said later: "I had never seen any trace of violence in Pete, except at that moment. He was furious with Dylan!") Reportedly, one festival board member--probably Seeger--was so upset that he threatened to pull out the entire electrical wiring system. Cooler heads cautioned that plunging the audience into the dark might cause a real riot.
At a party later that night, The Chambers Brothers played rock for dancing, and a discotheque ambience descended on Newport. I asked George Wein, the festival's technical producer, why he didn't like folk-rock. He countered: "You've been brainwashed by the recording industry." Off in a corner, a sullen Dylan sat on the lap of Betsy Siggins, of Cambridge's Club 47. He looked stunned, shaken, and disappointed.
(The outbursts at Newport that Sunday night, July 25, 1965, brought to mind another startling event in music history. At the premiere of Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring," on May 29, 1913, at the Theatre des Champs-Elysses, the Paris audience was torn in two by Stravinsky's pioneering score and Nijinsky's choreography. When the curtains parted on the ballet troupe, a storm broke loose. Stravinsky stomped backstage. Carl Van Vechten wrote later that many outraged listeners thought the Stravinsky work "was a blasphemous attempt to destroy music as an art." There was so much racket, the orchestra played unheard. Catcalls, boos, and hissing interrupted music and dancing. People in the gallery called out for a doctor, two doctors, even a dentist! Backstage, pandemonium. Diaghilev, the famous choreographer, thought the only way to curb the noise was to turn off the lights. He kept ordering the electricians to turn the house lights on, then off. On a chair in the wings, Nijinsky stood, with Stravinsky behind him, "beating out the rhythms with his fists and shouting numbers to the dancers like a coxswain." At the end, orchestra, dancers, leaders of the production, and audience, were completely exhausted. )
As cast and audience left Newport '65, a definite break in community brotherhood had occurred. Dylan had served another declaration of aesthetic independence. Later, in Sing Out, Jim Rooney, a gentle Boston musician, wrote: "It was disturbing to the Old Guard ... Bob is no longer a Neo-Woody Guthrie .... The highway he travels now is unfamiliar to those who bummed around... during the Depression. He travels by plane ... the mountains and valleys he knows are those of the mind---a mind extremely aware of the violence of the inner and outer world. 'The people' so loved by Pete Seeger are 'the mob' so hated by Dylan .... They seemed to understand that night for the first time what Dylan has been trying to say for over a year--that he is not theirs or anyone else's and they didn't like what they heard and booed .... Can there be no songs as violent as the age? Must a folk song be of mountains, valleys, and love between my brother and my sister all over this land? Do we allow for despair only in the blues?... The only one in the entire festival who questioned our position was Bob Dylan. 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."
I saw Dylan twice in New York the week after the festival. He still seemed stunned and distressed that he had sparked such animosity. He was shaken that people had yelled "Get rid of that electric guitar!" But he refused to enter squabbles. Of his introducing electric music at Newport and the years of controversy that ensued, Dylan said, over and over again, "It was honest. It was honest."