Elijah Wald has been a musician since age seven and a writer since the early 1980s. He has published more than a thousand articles, mostly about folk, roots and international music for various magazines and newspapers, including over ten years as “world music” writer for the Boston Globe. In anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the Electric Dylan Controversy, Wald wrote a book exploring the cultural, political and historical context of the seminal event that went down at the Newport Folk Festival. Wald gave an engaging talk at NFF this year, and then HeadCount’s Aaron Ghitelman caught up with Wald to discuss the book, politics and music in the 60’s, and more.
Let’s start off with an introduction of yourself and this book Dylan Goes Electric!
Elijah Wald: I’m a writer, I’m a musician, I’m a music historian. The Bob Dylan goes Electric at Newport story is one of those iconic stories in 20th Century American music for better or worse; and I saw that the 50th anniversary was coming up and it seemed like a good hook to string a book on.
But then it got a lot more interesting to me as I went on into it because the more I thought about it the more it struck me that the reason the moment is iconic is not even so much what Dylan is doing but that other people were upset by it and the story of why that was upsetting to people is not so much a story about Dylan. That moment really symbolizes the birth of the counterculture. A few years ago I did a book called How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll and the idea behind that title is that all revolutions destroy the previous society and if you love the revolution or hate the revolution doesn’t change the fact that when something new takes over something old is lost and that’s always a complicated process and this is another book on that theme.
Before writing this book how would you have described the Dylan goes electric myth?
EW: The standard answer was Dylan came out on stage playing some of the most exciting music of the decade and the uncomprehending old folkies didn’t understand what they were looking at and got upset. That’s the simplistic way of telling the story. I already knew there’s another way of telling the story where Newport and the folk scene were trying to create this new and exciting relationship of people to rural working class community styles of music and so what Dylan was doing as potentially destroying that dream and were upset about it for that reason. Having grown up on the folk scene I felt sympathy with that; though on the other hand, Highway 61 is one of the most exciting albums ever made.
How would you describe that event now?
EW: Well, on the one hand this incredibly exciting music was being made and this incredibly exciting and complicated and iconic period in American and World History was beginning. Youth Culture, those words didn’t really mean anything before 1965. Everything we say when we say thee 60’s tends to be the post that moment 60’s, the hippies, drugs, Vietnam, the long hair. In 1963, just two years earlier, you look at film of the March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. spoke and it’s a protest march and everyone is wearing suits and ties. The time I went to my first protest march as a kid in ‘68 nobody was in a suit and tie, it would have seemed crazy. The idea that being a leftist was associated with being young [was new].
The leftists of the first half of the 60’s were the survivors of the Roosevelt era. The young were the people who were not politically involved like their elders had been. A bit how 60’s radicals have looked at the young through the 90’s and the early 2000’s until Occupy [Wall Street] arrived. I can’t tell you how many people I grew up with who were [asking] “why aren’t young people engaged anymore?” And that was very much the rap of the Pete Seeger generation about the young of the 50’s and the beginning of the 60’s, the early Dylan, you can in a sense see the Pete Seeger generation saying thank god the young people are joining us and leading a new wave. what happened in ‘65 can be seen as the young people saying actually we’re leading our new wave, not yours. The New Left/Old left split.
So you could say the Newport Folk Fest in ‘65 marked the death of the New Deal coalition?
EW: I think that is why the Seegers of the world found it so upsetting. It had always been a complicated coalition. There were a lot of different forces in every group. For a little while in the early 1960’s, it could feel if you were a folk fan or a leftist it could feel like all “right thinking” people were on one side. By 1965 it had become very very hard to feel that way. The Vietnam War was a huge part of that. It’s very easy by now to forget quite how much of the American Left that felt like the Civil Rights movement was a clear case of Good vs. Evil felt like the Vietnam War was something we might should be getting into. In 1964 and ‘65 when a lot of committed leftists who were committed anti-communist leftists felt like this communist dictatorship, was that against freedom. It’s a complicated moment.
The same weekend as Newport, LBJ increased involvement in Vietnam. What percentage of the crowd might have known about that?
EW: Everybody. The way I remember learning about it was looking at the front page of the Providence Journal [from that weekend], which was the local newspaper. Anyone who looked at the newspapers. Was it a crowd who looked at the newspapers even when they were at a folk festival? I don’t know. It was obviously not a crowd receiving the news on their iPhones in that moment, but the word that Vietnam was heating up certainly everyone was aware of.
In the book you refer the the Folk and Pop Rock divide as more ideological than musical, could you elaborate on that?
EW: The first thing I would say is that to say that any divide, musical divide, tends not to be about music, and I would really really underline that. Whether you’re talking Folk vs. Pop or Classical vs. Pop or Folk vs. Rock the differences tend not to be sonic. You tend to have things in each category that sound an awful lot alike. The differences are really about how people define who they think they are and who they should be grouped with. Liking Folk music is about being a folk fan. And in the case of Pop that’s particularly true.
The idea that The Weavers or Peter, Paul and Mary are a Folk group and not a Pop group, to me seems very weird, but that’s what most people mean by Folk music. Joan Baez, or Peter Paul and Mary or the Kingston Trio is what most people meant by Folk music in 1962,’63, ‘64. It was clean young people with pretty voices singing nice songs with quiet backgrounds, which is kind of the opposite of a chain gang work song in every possible respect. The idea that what we love is Folk not Pop, therefore we like Peter, Paul and Mary and not Barbara Streisand, to me Peter Paul and Mary and Barbra were sorta in the same category, which is just a way of describing my snobbery as opposed to somebody else’s snobbery.
What would you consider folk music in 2015?
EW: I’m always going to give the same answer because I come from Dave van Ronk, and Dave van Ronk is a Marxist. My definition of folk music is always going to be economic and sociological. My definition of folk music is always what people sing in their own communities to entertain one another. Entertain may not be the right word but what people sing for and with one another in their own communities is folk music and what they consume commercially is not. That’s my definition. You go to any church in America and you will hear folk music. You go to any concert hall and you will hear professional music performed for an audience including if what’s on the stage is a church congregation singing the songs that was folk music earlier that week. That’s going to be my definition.
Throughout the book you mention Bob Dylan’s wardrobe. What do you think was the impact of Dylan’s clothing choices in 1965.
EW: They were very much like the choices many people of his generation were making and it was a really profound shift. It was a world of people who were not going to wear suits and ties and were accepting that that meant that they were not going to have certain kinds of jobs, get rooms at certain hotels, get seated at certain restaurants. I think in some ways it’s analogous to the extreme piercing and tattooing we’ve seen in the last 15-20 years.
In the 60s grown ups felt that if you dressed that way you made a choice to look like a slob and it was not more complicated than that. and I think it was a profound statement for people like Dylan to say that they were not going to wear costumes, but it also was a profoundly middle-class statement. I have African-American friends who were on the Folk scene who to this day continue to express their irritation at the way people like Dylan dressed. They feel like if you’re on stage you’re supposed to dress like you’re going on stage – that’s your job.
What was Pete Seeger wearing that weekend?
EW: Nobody ever discusses what Pete Seeger was wearing. He was probably wearing jeans and a work shirt too. Fashion and Seeger were never sentences said together. Whereas fashion and Dylan, almost from the beginning, people dressed like Dylan, people dressed like Baez. I think that’s about age. What Pete Seeger was dressing like was a working man. But it wasn’t considered a fashion statement any more than what working people wore was considered a fashion statement. It’s interesting, and that’s not a question for me, that’s a question for somebody, and I don’t know who it is, who has done a better study of fashion and its relationship to society because it’s something very very profound happened in the 60’s relative to that and I don’t really understand it.
Let’s pivot away from 1965. Who was your artist at the 2015 Newport Folk Festival?
EW: The Como Mamas. They were a black acapella trio that performed on the Museum Stage on Sunday. They were the only music I heard at the festival that was the music I most loved done as well as I’ve ever heard it done, they were absolutely superb.
Did you make it to the Newport Jazz Festival?
EW: No, I did not this year. But I will happily go on record saying you will hear more Folk music at the Jazz Festival than at the Folk Festival at this point.
This article was originally published on HeadCount and reprinted with permission.