ON RECORD: Electric Dylan and the 1965 Newport Folk Fest
On July 25, 1965, Bob Dylan plugged in for his headlining set at the Newport Folk Festival. Backed by the Butterfield Blues Band, it was reported that folk purists attempted to "boo," Dylan for the non-acoustic sound. Two years earlier, the folk songwriting phenomena had won the crowd over with "Blowin' in the Wind," on his acoustic guitar. But on Sunday, July 25, 1965 Electric Dylan was born.
Dylan had performed acoustic numbers the day before, but roadie Jonathan Taplin said Dylan had decided to challenge festival rules on a whim that afternoon. Just days earlier, Dylan had released "Like a Rolling Stone," featuring Dylan's decidedly rock sounding electric guitar. At the festival Taplin said festival organizer Alan Lomax had made some disparaging remarks about the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. In response, Dylan insisted on a fully amplified back-up band. Going so far as to say, "Well, fuck them if they think they can keep electricity out of here, I'll do it."
Dylan then assembled a band and rehearsed that night at a mansion being used by festival organizer George Wein.
Sunday, July 25, Dylan was scheduled to perform between Cousin Emmy and the Sea Island singers, two very traditional folk acts. Master of ceremonies Peter Yarrow introduced, "Ladies and gentlemen, the person that's going to come up now has a limited amount of time...His name is Bob Dylan." Taking the stage was Dylan, along with Mike Bloomfield on guitar, Al Kooper on organ, and Butterfield Band bassist Jerome Arnold, drummer Sam Lay, and Barry Goldberg on piano.
Booing and cheering can be heard as Dylan begin's the electrified "Maggie's Farm." After playing "Like a Rolling Stone," and "Phantom Engineer," Dylan and the band left the stage. More booing, more cheering are audible in the background. Yarrow came onstage, begging Dylan to return. Returning but forgetting his harmonica, Dylan asked the audience for an "E harmonica," which was followed by rattle of harmonicas hitting the stage. In his farewell to Newport, Dylan performed an acoustic set of "Mr. Tambourine Man," followed by "It's all over now, baby blue."
There is debate over whether the boos were from poor sound quality or in response to Dylan's recent electrified sound. Additionally, some argue attendees booed in response to Dylan's short set. Backstage, it was reported that Pete Seeger didn't care for the performance either stating, "Get that distortion out of his voice ... It's terrible. If I had an axe, I'd chop the microphone cable right now." Legends of Pete Seeger wielding an axe in response to Dylan's electrified set are legends at best. Still, the imagery remains potent as Dylan's electric guitar did signal a shift from politically-minded folk music to self-expression in the realms of rock.
Dylan did not perform again at Newport for 37 years. When he did, it was in 2002 and while wearing a fake beard and wig.