Dylan Goes Electric! Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night That Split the Sixties
By Elijah Wald
Dey Street, 368 pp., $26.99
It is one of the most storied, steeped, controversial, mythologized, and, some believe, epochal events in rock and roll history. On the night of July 25, 1965, as part of the closing night of the Newport Folk Festival, Bob Dylan — the prodigal son and anointed young champion of the genre — dared, dared to plug in an electric guitar during his brief set.
Armed with a Fender Stratocaster and a sneer, decked out in a leather jacket, he and an ad hoc band (mostly recruited from the Paul Butterfield Blues Band) played a shambling, loud set of three songs of blistering blues rock that literally stunned the crowd.
Opening with the stern declaration of “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s Farm no more!”, Dylan segued into his then-current (and non-folk-sounding) single “Like a Rolling Stone” before closing with “Phantom Engineer,” later known as “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry." The chaotic performance left thousands in the audience (and fellow performers and festival organizers) alternately pissed off, ecstastic, bemused, amused and challenged. Fifty years later, people are still debating the facts.
And what are the facts? The boos that came during and after Dylan’s performance: were they a negative reaction to his radical change in musical direction? Or to the fact that the sound system sucked and Dylan said not a word to his audience? Or because of the very short set from the show’s main attraction? And just how much booing was there, actually? Opinions from those who were there differ radically, and audio/video is inconclusive.
And did Pete Seeger, upset by the loudness, actually try and cut the sound cables with an axe? Or just threaten to do so? Or just say he was thinking of it out loud? And did the mention of “axe” mean a guitar…or literally the chopping instrument? Even Seeger’s own recollection seems to have changed over the decades.
In this book filled with laser-sharp research and new interviews, Wald does a fine, comprehensive job. And not only giving as-definitive-as-possible account of the night, but also providing plenty of background on the Festival, folk music’s ascent and place in the culture, and the dueling biographies and (sometimes) viewpoints of the genre’s old guard (represented by Pete Seeger) and Dylan’s newer evolution.
It’s a thoughtful meditation on all divergent areas that Wald brings together into one narrative. And no area gets more treatment than the in-fighting and disagreements within the folk music community itself over issues of “authenticity,” “sell out,” “commercial vs. critical success” and just who has the “right” to play the music.
Throughout, folk performers ranging from Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary, the Kingston Trio, and Dave Van Ronk to Phil Ochs, Skip James, Son House, Jean Ritchie, and scores of others make appearances, enriching the story of not only the mid-sixties, but also the main narrative.
Dylan wasn’t the first musician to ever “plug in” at the Newport Folk Festival, nor the first act to cause controversy with a non-wooden sound at the 1965 show. That would have been the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, whose belittling introduction by Alan Lomax led to an actual fistfight with manager Albert Grossman.
But his seeming rejection of the traditional folk music and audiences that had originally brought him to prominence certainly left no uncertainty as to what Bob Dylan and his music would sound like going forward. The man himself, not surprisingly, has not chosen to say much about it over the past 50 years. And the famous guitar – though not the performer who played it – was actually on view for the festival's just-wrapped 2015 edition.
But it is clear that on that hot summer night when he “went electric,” Bob Dylan helped changed the course of music in the ‘60s and his own career trajectory in just 17 minutes (with time for tuning up and setting up onstage). After the onstage uproar, a frantic emcee Peter Yarrow was able to coax Dylan back out onstage – with a borrowed acoustic guitar and harmonica – to play two numbers and placate the crowd.
Tellingly, the first was “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”