What was it like when Dylan went electric?

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It was 50 years ago today that Bob Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival. The festival's production manager Joe Boyd relives what that night was like.

By 1965, Bob Dylan was the artist leading American folk music’s revival, which was partly popularised by the Newport Folk Festival.

 

Dylan performed acoustically at the inaugural Newport event in 1963 and the next year in '64. He was enlisted to be a part of the final night of performances in 1965. But from the beginning of that fateful third festival, it was clear that Bob Dylan, and the folk revival, had turned into something very different.

From the very beginning of the festival, there was an unease. A nervousness and an excitement. Young people, folkies, the old line, everybody was looking at Dylan. What's he gonna do?

Joe Boyd

Joe Boyd was the production manager at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival and said folk music had experienced incredible growth since the first event two years earlier.

"The whole phenomenon of Dylan and folk music and the festival, everything had grown," Boyd tells Double J. "'63 was a huge success, '64 even bigger and on the one hand I think everybody, all the folkies, were very excited by how successful the thing had become.

"A lot of people who weren't necessarily hardcore folk fans were coming; they were interested now because it was so well known.

Just days before his 1965 Newport performance, Bob Dylan released 'Like a Rolling Stone', a song that saw him desert political, acoustic folk in favour of a rock sound.

"In the spring of '65 The Byrds put out 'Mr Tambourine Man' with an electric arrangement and then Bob Dylan came out with 'Like a Rolling Stone', with drums, electric guitar and an organ. The board of the festival was very, very nervous because they could sense the landscape shifting underneath them. Things weren't the same.

"The board of the festival were mostly old line left-wingers for whom folk was the music of the people. There was a political message implicit. And Dylan was the new Woody Guthrie writing songs like 'Blowin' In The Wind' and 'Masters Of War'. Now he's doing songs like 'Mr Tamborine Man', what the heck is that about? That's not a political message. His new record has a rhythm section; it's a whole different thing.

"So, from the very beginning of the festival, there was an unease. A nervousness and an excitement. Young people, folkies, the old line, everybody was looking at Dylan. What's he gonna do?"

"He was wearing a polka-dot, puffed-sleeve shirt. He wasn't wearing denims. He looked weird, he looked different. All over the festival grounds you could get little whiffs of marijuana. This was very unsettling to the old guard because they'd never had that before. I think they sensed that if you're stoned, you're not gonna be storming the barricade.

"All weekend, the subject of conversation was constantly 'What's gonna happen on Sunday night? What's Dylan gonna do? He wouldn't dare have a rhythm section at Newport, would he?'

"The truth is there had been electric guitars at Newport before. I think the Staple Singers or some other gospel group had had electric guitar. But it was the symbolism of this change that was so monumental to everybody."

Dylan played a workshop on the Saturday evening of the festival, after which he rehearsed the three-song set he was to play on Sunday with the Butterfield Blues Band's Mike Bloomfield, Jerome Arnold and Sam Lay, along with organist Al Kooper and pianist Barry Goldberg.

The venue was cleared between the afternoon and evening performances at the festival, giving Boyd and his team an hour to soundcheck the Dylan performance.

"We knew this was really important, that we really needed to get this right," Boyd recalls. "We were excited, we knew how big this was and what a bombshell this would be."

Dylan eventually appeared, with band in tow, to a mixed response.

"He was introduced in the dark, the lights came up and everybody saw this band,” Boyd remembers.

 

"He just tore into 'Maggie's Farm' and there was this huge shock everywhere. Some people loved it, some people hated it. There were people booing, there were people cheering."

But some very big names in the world of folk music were far from happy with what was unfolding on stage.

"Someone came running out and grabbed me and said 'They want you backstage'. So I went backstage and there was Pete Seeger and Alan Lomax and Theodore Bikel and they were furious. They said 'You've gotta turn it down, it's way too loud'. I said 'Well I don't have the controls here; they're out there in the middle of the audience.'

Following a discussion with Pete Seeger, it was agreed that Boyd would rush to the sound desk to pass on the request.

"Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul & Mary) was at the control board," Boyd says. "He was a member of the board, the board had decided they needed to get younger, they had to add a token young person. He was sitting next to Paul Rothchild and Al Grossman at the sound controls. I said 'Alan Lomax thinks the sound is too loud and you've got to turn it down, Pete Seeger too'.

I went backstage and there was Pete Seeger and Alan Lomax and Theodore Bikel and they were furious. They said 'You've gotta turn it down, it's way too loud'.

Joe Boyd

"Yarrow just looked at me and said 'You tell Alan that the board of the festival is at the sound controls and the representative of the festival at the controls thinks it sounds just fine.' So I had to go back and deliver that message.

"Seeger walked off to the parking lot; he couldn't stand it any longer. Lomax just cursed and turned away."

This short, three-song set has become one of the most famous performances in music history. It was a middle finger to the boundaries of folk music, but Boyd says it wasn't a completely joyous occasion.

"You felt in this moment that history would change and that the idealism of the folk festival would never be the same," he says. "In a way, something really beautiful had been broken or damaged in a way.

"Over the next few years, folk clubs and jazz clubs all across America shut down and converted into rock clubs.  The whole non-conformist youth that had either started snapping their fingers to Miles Davis records or started strumming a guitar wanting to be Pete Seeger, all those people became rock musicians or rock fans. The whole culture hinged on that night."

This piece was originally published as a part of the Bob Dylan J Files

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