The times really were a-changin’ — when Dylan electrified his fans

Elijah Wald explains how the music world changed forever on 25 July 1965 at Newport, Rhode Island

29 August 2015

9:00 AM

29 August 2015

9:00 AM

Dylan Goes Electric! Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night that Split the Sixties Elijah Wald

HarperCollins, pp.368, £16.99, ISBN: 9780062366689

Five songs, only three of which were amplified. Thirty-five minutes, including interruptions. That’s how long Bob Dylan played for at Newport Folk Festival on Sunday 25 July 1965. Even on its own merits, it was a messy, halting set with an inadequate sound system. ‘Why did that matter?’ Elijah Wald rightly asks. ‘Why does what one musician played on one evening continue to resonate half a century later?’

Cameras documented only the stage, and memories are unreliable, so nobody can say how many in the 17,000-strong crowd booed Dylan’s noisy rock’n’roll rebirth, but one eyewitness’s claim that it ‘electrified one half of his audience and electrocuted the other’ is broadly true. Dylan himself was shaken, asking a friend, ‘What happened? What went wrong?’ The festival organisers, led by the veteran folksinger and activist Pete Seeger, saw Eden slipping away. Had Dylan lost his voice that morning and cancelled the show, rock would still have waxed and folk still waned, but Newport turned a trend into a drama.

Received wisdom casts it as a violent generational schism, but Wald, a seasoned historian of folk music and the 1960s, prefers to see it as a still relevant clash between

the twin ideals of the modern era: the democratic, communitarian ideal of a society of equals working together for the common good and the romantic, libertarian ideal of the free individual, unburdened by constraints or rules or custom.

Unfortunately, the road to Newport is too long and much of the backstory is overfamiliar. This is ground that hasn’t just been well-trodden; it’s been steamrollered flat. More illuminating is Wald’s analysis of the folk revival. Far from being a tight clique of earnest fuddy-duddies, it was a vibrantly unstable alliance of different factions, from college-age Peter, Paul and Mary fans to seasoned song collectors, and from old Popular Front leftists to blues purists. Seeger, its de facto leader, was pop as in populist, eager to disseminate his songs of peace and togetherness.

Seeger, who had almost been jailed for defying the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, saw himself as the humble servant of a larger cause: ‘The man is nothing; the work is everything,’ as the insightful folksinger Dave Van Ronk put it. To older fans, folk music had kept the left’s flame alive during the dark days of the 1950s and Dylan, the hero of Newport in 1963 and 1964, was its second coming: ‘a link to their own lost youth that validated them and gave them hope for their own resurgence’.

But Dylan was unwilling to be a spokesperson for anybody but himself and anyone paying attention should have known that by July 1965 he was flying the nest. He had already moved into folk-rock with Bringing It All Back Home; befriended the Beatles, the barbarians at the folk scene’s gates; and told the New York Times: ‘I’m in the show business now. I’m not in the folk-music business.’

Wald’s book catches light when it reaches Newport. Armed with dozens of primary sources and eyewitness testimonies, he vividly chronicles the whole weekend and unpicks a lot of enduring myths, but his real contribution to the history of this most divisive performance is not to take sides. He appreciates what Dylan gained and what Seeger lost during a summer when the civil rights and student movements were also fracturing along lines of age and temperament, a process symbolised by the declining popularity of the idealistic Newport anthem ‘We Shall Overcome’ — indeed the whole concept of a united ‘we’.

History has been unkind to the folk revival’s old guard (if they matter at all to most rock fans now, it is only because they nurtured Dylan), but they were nonconformist dreamers, too, and rebels in their time. One newspaper critic wrote of Dylan’s set: ‘What he used to stand for, whether one agreed with it or not, was much clearer than what he stands for now. Perhaps himself.’

Fifty years on, we are surprised when a singer stands for anything more than himself. It’s to Wald’s credit that I finished the book unsure whether I would have cheered, booed or had the wisdom to be ambivalent.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

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Show comments
  • Frank Marker

    There is an excellent account of this in Joe Boyd’s (one of the festival’s organisers) in his book ‘White Bicycles’. Humour, sadness, excitement and anger, it’s all in there.

  • Gilbert White

    People not of his stature have difficulty keeping up with him. The blowing of wind was topical, easy and populist. Less than ten years after self portrait in slow train and infidels he had mapped out the unsustainable post modern diaspora. Now I am pseud like dylanologist!

    • ViolinSonaten b minor.

      ” Now I am pseud dylanologist ! ” good for you Gilbert White.
      I cannot read the rest of this unless I buy the magazine but I get the picture.
      I am assuming this was also at around the same time as Eric Clapton-
      all these old greats were around the same era.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      “blowing of wind”

  • rosebery

    I am absolutely of the age to have been swept up in this, but wasn’t. It is a shame that the folk revival, and what it was about, have been lost by time, but when I am exposed to the Dylan-reverence by some of his ageing fans, I rather wish time would absorb that as well. A handful of killer songs, best when covered by others. That’s it. His legacy. As noted in the article, rock would still have waxed, and folk waned. The same goes for the Beatles, which band I did see in 1964. An alternative view is available, of course, and a short conversation with my brother on the topic would provide it. Meanwhile, I’m going to listen to some Vintage Trouble with my morning coffee.

    • Tom Allalone

      A shade uncharitable, IMHO. Dylan produced at least three classic albums which still sound good today and five or six others which most artists would kill to have in their back catalogue. Not sure about the covers argument either – Hendrix’s ‘All Along the Watchtower’ is better than the original but Dylan’s versions of his songs are usually the most expressive. That said, I reckon he should have retired after ‘Desire’. To quote P J O’Rourke, he’s a classic case of ‘I found God and lost my talent’. Overall it sounds like I’d agree with your brother

  • Bjorn Ahlblad

    As a teen in Montreal we went to a couple of Seeger workshops, later I saw Bob and Joan at a Joan Baez concert in Ottawa. It was highly entertaining of course but left me wanting something more exciting-guess I was never a folkie.
    When Bob went electric I was thrilled-what a great artist! What a brilliant career he has had. Proof to me is the not just the admiration paid him by his fans; but the deep respect of his peers. What a journey; and not dead yet-his bell still rings!

  • Innit Bruv

    Judas !