An annoyed Bob Dylan took the stage on a Sunday night at the Newport Folk Festival, fifty-one years ago today, and did something that would forever change the way the world viewed him: he plugged in his guitar. What followed was a set of music that would offend his fans and friends alike, and fundamentally change the way the singer-songwriter viewed his art. Debate over exactly whether they were booing the startling change in presentation and style by the beloved notoriously possessive audience favorite, the terrible audio mix that made Dylan’s deft lyrics unintelligible, or simply how short Dylan’s set was has raged ever since that fateful night. Whatever the cause, the result was one of the most infamous concerts in modern history.
It was Dylan’s third straight appearance at the festival, and his previous sets at the Newport Folk Festival had helped the quickly rising star become the leading artist of the folk movement. America was in yet another of a seemingly endless series of wars abroad, while racial tensions and protests were sparking across the nation. Dylan’s forceful acoustic style and fiery lyrics decrying the state of the world were tailor made for the scared and the angry. With his own popularity surging and folk music gaining prominence on radio stations and college campuses around the country, Dylan was a leading voice of his generation, and that voice, like the times, was a-changin.’
Established in 1959, the Newport Folk Festival quickly grew into a juggernaut thanks to founder George Wein, who had already built the Newport Jazz Festival into a success. Wein’s work promoting the jazz community had earned him much love and respect from the music world, so when he reached out to folk luminary Pete Seeger and Theodore Bikel to help create the event, he found them both eager to help bring the burgeoning music genre to the people. Through their efforts, artists like Peter, Paul & Mary, Joan Baez and the artists who had influenced them rose to prominence. Dylan’s own rise in the scene owed no small thanks to his star turns at previous iterations of the fest.
Watch Dylan’s acoustic approach take on “North Country Blues” from his 1963 Newport Folk Festival appearance below:
And here he is performing “Mr. Tambourine Man” the following year:
In March of 1965, Dylan released his first album of amplified music, >Bringing It All Back Home, featuring one side of electric songs including classics like “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Maggie’s Farm.” The second side was in his more recognizable acoustic style, with classics “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” The electric tunes were the more attention getting-alteration to his style, though another change was causing some fans to take notice. Dylan was showing a distinct move away from protest material, which had been a heavy part of his songbook, and towards more introspective songwriting. Clearly he was an artist who was not going to be resting on his laurels, and was ready to challenge himself and his audience. Neither side of the equation could fully anticipate the visceral reaction to come, however.
Roadie Jonathan Taplin, who had been on hand during Dylan’s Saturday Newport appearance at a series of workshops, tells the story of Dylan’s decision to change up his approach for the following night’s show. Of all people to inspire an incident of this nature, it was noted field music archivist and music historian Alan Lomax, who’s work had helped spread the folk, bluegrass and mountain music he so loved. When Lomax introduced the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, he was less-than-respectful. Dylan had worked with the members of the band, took umbrage, and decided to show the festival his new sound on the following night.
Dylan recruited an ad hoc band featuring the rhythm section of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, drummer Sam Lay and bassist Jerome Arnold, alongside Barry Goldberg on piano and two of the musicians who appeared on the recently recorded and released single “Like A Rolling Stone,” Mike Bloomfield on guitar and Al Kooper on organ. Taking over a pair of rooms at a nearby mansion rented and used by Wein, the band spent a few hours Saturday night preparing for the next night’s ride into infamy.
Ditching the plain work clothes he had favored as onstage wear until then, Dylan appeared clad in all black, head to toe. Festival emcee Peter Yarrow brought Dylan out to massive cheers from the eager audience, mentioning the short amount of time Dylan had to play. Dylan plugged in his Fender Stratocaster and, with a wink to his band, launched into his first public set of electrified music since high school. The reception to the first notes of show opener “Maggie’s Farm” was both instantaneous and intensely divided. Adding fuel to an already burning fire, there were massive issues with the sound mix, particularly Dylan’s vocals. Given that his lyrical prowess was such a large part of his acclaim, the jolt of the rock music backers and garbled words ignited a large portion of the crowd into angry outbursts that rattled Dylan and his impromptu band.
Check out the chorus of boos and cheers for yourself in the video of “Maggie’s Farm” from the 1965 Newport Folk Festival below:
Not letting the negativity stop him, Dylan launched into his recently recorded and released amplified single, “Like A Rolling Stone.” Following an unpopular opener with an unfamiliar tune further angered the nay-sayers in the audience. Not only was Dylan playing electric, he was apparently going to be playing songs they hadn’t even heard yet. Managing only one more song, Dylan and the band left the stage to growing hostility, as even those cheering him began to turn against him for leaving the stage so soon. Yarrow implored Dylan to return, and after a few minutes the singer songwriter returned to the stage, alone with an acoustic guitar.
Unprepared for performing acoustically, Dylan was forced to ask the crowd for a harmonica in the proper key. After just two short songs in his more familiar and crowd friendly set-up, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and “Mr. Tambourine Man,” he left the stage to an uproarious cheer and calls for more. Those hopes for more music from Dylan that night, and indeed for decades to come, would be in vain for attendees of the Newport Folk Festival. Pete Seeger even commented that he wanted to cut Dylan’s cables with an axe. Speaking on his disillusionment, Dylan has since said, “I expected something negative from the crowd, but hearing Pete was so mad hurt me worst of all.”
Reception to Dylan’s new direction remained split over the months to come. At his Forest Hills Stadium show in Queens later that year fans rushed the stage and pelted the band with fruit. The always spirited Dylan took the backlash as a challenge, a chance to prove the strength of his material by winning over the doubters. Given his status as one of modern music’s greatest icons, it is safe to say he accomplished that mission. Taking into account the repeated references to the events of that day, in both song lyrics and interviews over the next decade, it was clear that the landmark show was something of a touchstone for Dylan. Dylan’s decision to add this dimension to his sound would lead to the most productive period of his career, including his legendary collaboration with The Band.
Facing that negative response was essential to Dylan’s strengthening as an artist and his progress as a creator, while blazing the trail for those who would follow. His success in reinventing himself and transcending expectations would inspire other artists to follow their own musical paths, regardless of tradition and expectations. Rock music was a relatively newborn art at that point in time, and performers like Dylan brought variety, nuance and depth to the sound that had been previously ignored. Rock could be something more than the background to dances and a way to rile up teens… it could have something legitimate to say, and say it well.
Information for this article was gathered from the book Dylan Goes Electric, Wikipedia and the film Festival.