On July 25, 1965, Bob Dylan played three songs with an electric backing band at the Newport Folk Festival. This brief performance surprised and shocked many people in the audience, and as long and considered one of the defining moments of Bob Dylan’s career. But what exactly happened that day? Stories about this performance say that many people in the audience were booing, and that Pete Seeger reportedly picked up an ax and tried to cut the power lines running to the stage. But how much of this is true?
Elijah Wald looks at this event in his delightful new book Dylan Goes Electric (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). This book is obviously much more than the story of that single day. It puts this event into context, examining the folk revival that started after World War II, and that was in the peak of its popularity in the early 1960s. It looks at the politics of the time, and how folk music was closely linked to the civil rights struggle. And it looks at how the music of young people had become a commercial juggernaut.
When I was growing up my father, who was a union man, had a few Pete Seeger records. I was familiar with many of these old-time, traditional songs that were very popular in the 1950s in the early 1960s. It is easy to forget just how popular Pete Seeger was. His band, The Weavers, was founded in 1948 — a sort of folk boy band — and had many hit recordings. Following this, and prior to the arrival of The Beatles in America, folk music was extremely popular. The Newport Folk Festival, founded in 1959 is an offshoot of the Newport Jazz Festival, grew in size every year, as new, young audiences came to hear performers who were getting radio play.
But in many ways, folk music suffered from a sort of fundamentalism. Songs were only “authentic” if they were traditional, and preferably anonymous. But the early 1960s saw a number of performers who integrated the folk music style into popular music. Joan Baez was the first folk superstar, shortly followed by Bob Dylan. Folkies wanted this music to remain authentic. As long as Dylan was writing songs that sounded political, he was accepted as one of them. But when he plugged in the electric guitar, this was a threat to authenticity.
This book helps better understand what Dylan’s performance meant as a milestone in popular music. While it has certainly been over-exaggerated (it’s not clear if the booing in the crowd was because Dylan was playing with an electric band, because the sound was bad, or because he only played 15 minutes), these three songs performed at the Newport Folk Festival with the start of Dylan’s electric period. As would be seen in the months following this performance — until Dylan withdrew after his motorcycle accident in 1966 — audiences everywhere were unhappy with the electrified music. The famous cry of “Judas” at the concert at the Manchester Free Trade Hall on May 17, 1966, bears witness to this dissatisfaction. When Dylan replied “You’re a liar,” and then, to his band, “Play it fucking loud,” he showed that he was not going to have his performance style dictated by his audiences. (He would play just six more concerts after that evening, before his motorcycle accident; with the exception of a handful of concerts, he did not tour again until 1974.)
While this book works its way through history to reach that night at Newport, it’s an inserting look at the music of the early 1960s, and how important Bob Dylan’s music was. This book tells the tale of folk music, and how Dylan achieved popularity in that style, before moving on, leaving behind recriminations and disappointment. And how, at the same time, he would go on to create three of the most important albums of the decade, in a little over a year.