Great Moments in Rock N’ Roll

by John Cipiti

John Cipiti

When Bob Dylan took the stage at the Newport Folk Festival on the 25th of July, 1965, he had just finished a successful tour of the United Kingdom, was an immense star and iconic voice of his generation. That night, he would walk away from the folk tradition, causing a ripple effect that would shake the foundation of popular music. Dylan had been interested in experimenting with electric instruments, as a number of recording sessions can attest, with what was basically a rock band – Subterranean Homesick Blues – on his Bringin’ It All Back Home album, as one example. After the album’s release, there was no evident negative reaction from the folk community to his use of electrified instruments. The reason may have been the strong acoustic-based arrangements that occupied the majority of the record, making it easy to side-step the occasional electrical spark. The real voltage issues would begin at the Festival.

Dylan may have been the biggest name in folk music in the mid-Sixties, but as a teenager, his biggest influences were delta blues and the rock-and-roll of Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry. Dylan wanted to be a rock star before he set foot on the road of becoming a folk artist – a path that would come later more out of necessity than a conscious choice at a young age. He was an avid Beatles fan, and it was his admiration of the four Brits that inspired him to stretch his capabilities, musically; at the same time, the Beatles’ admiration of Dylan drove them to stretch their lyrical abilities.

Embraced by the youth of the ‘60s – with their revived interest in the folk tradition that spoke to their yearnings for social change – Bob Dylan represented unbridled youth and a future freed of the constraints imposed on them by their parents. It should have hardly mattered when he took the stage at Newport wearing a black leather jacket and boots, looking more like Marlon Brando in the film The Wild One than an erstwhile folkie. But on this night, the crowd seemed nervous; fidgeting in their seats, sensing strange portents as Dylan stood detached, tuning his electric guitar. He was about to unleash a mega-watt performance of electricity, jolting the crowd, and change forever the way popular music would be performed. The backlash that occurred created a series of critical impresses, some factual – such as the press accusing Dylan of the worst kind of sacrilege for playing the electric guitar at a folk concert. Other reports were pure fantasy, creating parodies that make for great folktales: an axe-wielding folkie was said to be running rampant in a frenzied rage behind the stage, attempting to cut the wires to silence the hideously loud noise emanating from the stage.

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Accounts of the bombast have remained sketchy, with the truth of the matter about as reliable as a rubber crutch. But on Saturday (the day before the jolt), Dylan would perform three acoustic tunes at one of the Festival workshops that took place during the afternoon. At another workshop, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band (an electric group from Chicago), was causing a stir of their own with Alan Lomax – the famed American musicologist and one of the Festival managers – with their own brand of loud electrical blues that would cause Lomax to fling critical invective with regard to the band’s robust performance.

Reports vary, but once Dylan got wind of the comments, he made a conscious decision to break with tradition and perform with an electrified band. The only eyewitness to this supposed turn of events was a roadie named Jonathan Taplin, who was working one of the workshop stages and happened to be in earshot of Dylan. According to Taplin, Dylan was angered by the comments made by Lomax and dismissed the Festival’s organizers for acting like old fuddy-duddies with the insolence to think they could keep electricity out of the festival. “Well, fuck them if they think they can keep electricity out of here. I’ll do it!” Taplin allegedly heard him say. So it began on a whim that Dylan assembled an electric band for the following day’s performance.

The group he would assemble included two musicians who performed on his recently released single, Like a Rolling Stone: Al Kooper on organ, and Butterfield group member Mike Bloomfield on guitar. Jervan Arnold and Sam Lay – also members of Butterfield – would round out the rhythm section on bass and drums, along with Barry Goldberg on piano. When the band finally hit the stage, Peter Yarrow – Master of Ceremonies for the Festival and member of Peter, Paul, and Mary – would deliver the introduction: “Ladies and Gentleman, the person that’s going to come out now has a limited amount of time [supposedly only fifteen minutes, but managed to squeak out forty-five by most accounts]. His name is Bob [insert cheering noises, here] Dylan!” And then, as they say, all hell broke lose. The sound of jeers, tears, hisses, and boos began to bleed through the amplified sound after the first few strains of the first song, Maggie’s Farm, and would continue to reverberate like a Shueng Kwong gong into Like a Rolling Stone, only to sustain its rumbling reverberations through Phantom Engineer, with one final gongeroo for It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Lot to Cry.

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The band would saunter off the stage to an equally sonorous combination of hecklings and cheers, and to make matters worse, there was a downpour of rain. Others in the crowd sat motionless and stunned. Some sported the pitiable deer-in-the-head-lights look common among folk who have just been slapped along the side of the head with a size eleven Timberland boot and reminded that, “You don’t know what is happening here, do you, Mister Jones.” Fortunately, or not, Dylan would return to the stage once again and perform with an acoustic guitar after Yarrow begged him for another go. He would perform only two songs before leaving the stage expressionless and not bothering to return for another thirty-seven years.

The most interesting myth surrounding the performance was a furious Pete Seeger back stage with an axe in a demented attempt to silence the sound by chopping the wiring every which way to Woodstock (and that’s four years away!). Of course, this never happened, but he was found sitting in an old station wagon behind the stage covering his ears screaming, “Stop that sound!” Seeger, who would spend the rest of his life having to explain his behavior that fateful day, has always maintained that it was the poor sound quality, and not the electric performance, that upset him the most. He recalls telling the soundman to “Get that distortion out of his voice … if I had an axe, I’d chop the microphone cable right now!”

What’s the big deal for the negative reaction, anyway? It’s not like the crowd had never heard an electric instrument before. And so what if all this mythologizing didn’t quite happen the way we’d like to believe? Personally, I happen to adore the idea of a crazed banjo player lurking about backstage – preferably with a bum hip, sporting senseless glazed-over eyes – swinging an axe, and yowling “Heeerrre’s Peety” at anyone stupid enough to be walking around with an electric guitar or bass. Secondly, it’s quite clear many fans were seriously miffed with the electric sound, but at the same time, this seems a tad ridiculous, since there were other performances at the Festival that incorporated electrified instruments: Lighting Hopkins, The Chamber Brothers, Paul Butterfield Blues Band.

Al Kooper has probably come closest as to the real reason the crowd booed, and has argued that the electric controversy was over the poor sound quality and the short length of time the band performed on stage. Kooper has argued that the crowd could have cared less about the musicians playing electric instruments. Reports have confirmed the performance lasted fifteen to forty-five minutes, with the majority of the time being spent tuning their instruments and band members changing instruments. That would have pissed me off, too! And since the band would leave the stage after performing only three songs, well, give me that gong hammer!

The 1960s was a tumultuous decade, marked by fast-paced social changes, and compared to the relatively placid Fifties, it roared along like a primal scream. A youth culture demanding change amidst a backdrop of an unpopular war, civil rights, and political assassinations that took the lives of two Kennedys and Martin Luther King (just to name a few), was a generation like no other in the history of the United States. Dylan walking on the stage at Newport in 1965 with an electric guitar was a defining moment for this generation and for popular music. Dylan was leaving his past behind. He drew a line in the sand, knowing full well the old way was over, and asked everyone if they would like to come along with him. Some resisted this tendency and booed, while others, sensing the shift, cheered and went along for the ride. Yet others remained undecided. Dylan was James Dean, Marlon Brando, Beat writers Jack Kerouac, Allan Ginsberg, and every kid that felt alienated in their respective hometowns across America. Dylan was breaking away from the old tradition that night and caused a societal shift that has affected popular music ever since. Dylan going electric caused bands such as the Byrds to infuse rock textures in their otherwise traditional folk songs, creating the genre “folk-rock.” Dylan going electric opened the door for artists such as Jimi Hendrix, who has cited Dylan as a major influence.

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Arlo Guthrie – son of famed American folk artist Woody Guthrie – might have said it best when attempting to come to grips with the whole messy argument when he said, “It wasn’t a controversy between acoustic and electric. It was a controversy over the integrity of the music. How is it possible to have as much integrity and play rock and roll?!? It didn’t make sense to them, so they got furious!” Rock and roll grew up in 1965.