Electric Dylan controversy
By 1965, Bob Dylan had achieved the status of leading songwriter of the American folk music revival.[a 1] The response to his albums The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and The Times They Are a-Changin' led to him being labelled as the "spokesman of a generation" by the media. In March 1965, Dylan released his fifth album, Bringing It All Back Home. Side One featured Dylan backed by an electric band. Side Two featured Dylan accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. On July 20, 1965, Dylan released his single, "Like a Rolling Stone", featuring a rock sound. On July 25, 1965, Dylan performed with a rock band at the Newport Folk Festival. Some sections of the audience booed Dylan's performance. Leading members of the folk movement, including Irwin Silber[a 2] and Ewan MacColl[a 3] criticised Dylan for moving away from political songwriting, and performing with an electric band.
Newport 1965 set
At the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, Dylan had been received enthusiastically when he performed "Blowin' in the Wind" with Joan Baez, Peter Paul and Mary, and other Festival performers. At the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, Dylan performed "With God On Our Side" and "Mr Tambourine Man".
On Saturday, July 24, 1965, Dylan performed three acoustic numbers, "All I Really Want to Do", "If You Gotta Go, Go Now", and "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" at a Newport workshop. According to Jonathan Taplin, a roadie at Newport (and later a road manager for the acts of Dylan's manager Albert Grossman) Dylan made a spontaneous decision on the Saturday that he would challenge the Festival by performing with a fully amplified band. Taplin said that Dylan had been irritated by what he considered condescending remarks which festival organiser Alan Lomax had made about the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, when Lomax introduced them for an earlier set at a festival workshop. Dylan's attitude, according to Taplin, was, "Well, fuck them if they think they can keep electricity out of here, I'll do it. On a whim he said he wanted to play electric." Dylan then assembled a band and rehearsed that night at a mansion being used by festival organiser George Wein.
On the night of Sunday, July 25, Dylan's appearance was sandwiched between Cousin Emmy and the Sea Island singers, two decidedly traditional acts. The band that went on stage to back Dylan included two musicians who had played on his recently released single, "Like a Rolling Stone": Mike Bloomfield on lead guitar and Al Kooper on organ. Two of Bloomfield's bandmates from the Paul Butterfield Blues Band also appeared at Newport: bassist Jerome Arnold and drummer Sam Lay, along with Barry Goldberg on piano.
Footage of Dylan's Newport performance can be seen in the documentary films Festival (1967), No Direction Home (2005) and The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan Live at the Newport Folk Festival 1963–1965 (2007). The footage begins with Dylan being introduced by Master of Ceremonies Peter Yarrow: "Ladies and gentlemen, the person that's going to come up now has a limited amount of time ... His name is Bob Dylan." In the documentary footage, the sound of both booing and cheering can be heard a few bars into Dylan's first song, "Maggie's Farm", and continues throughout his second, "Like a Rolling Stone". Dylan and his band then performed "Phantom Engineer", an early version of "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry". Dylan was said to have "electrified one half of his audience, and electrocuted the other".
After "Phantom Engineer", Dylan and the band left the stage. The sound of booing and clapping can be heard in the background. When Peter Yarrow returned to the microphone, he begged Dylan to continue performing. According to Robert Shelton, when Dylan returned to the stage, he discovered he did not have the right harmonica and said to Yarrow, "What are you doing to me?" Dylan then asked the audience for 'an E harmonica'. Within a few moments, a clatter of harmonicas hit the stage. He then performed two songs on acoustic guitar for the audience: "Mr. Tambourine Man", and then, as his farewell to Newport, "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue". The crowd exploded with applause at the end, calling for more. Dylan did not return to the Newport festival for 37 years. In an enigmatic gesture, Dylan performed at Newport in 2002, sporting a wig and fake beard.
Reasons for the crowd's reaction
It has been argued by Murray Lerner, and others present at Newport, that the boos were from outraged folk fans, who disliked Dylan playing an electric guitar. Al Kooper, and others present at Newport, have disagreed with this interpretation, and argued that the audience were upset by poor sound quality, and the short duration of the set.
Poor sound quality was the reason Pete Seeger (backstage) gave for disliking the performance: he says he told the audio technicians, "Get that distortion out of his voice ... It's terrible. If I had an axe, I'd chop the microphone cable right now." Seeger has also said, however, that he only wanted to cut the cables because he wanted the audience to hear Dylan's lyrics properly, because he thought they were important. Rumors that Seeger actually had an axe, or that a festival board member pulled or wanted to pull out the entire electrical wiring system are apocryphal. In the film No Direction Home, John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers, who is Pete Seeger's brother-in-law, states that Seeger wanted to lower the volume of the band because the noise was upsetting his elderly father Charlie, who wore a hearing aid. In the same film, Dylan claimed that Seeger's unenthusiastic response to his set was like a "dagger in his heart" and made him "want to go out and get drunk".
According to Jazz historian John Szwed, the legend about Pete Seeger cutting the cable or pulling the cords of the acoustic system may have arisen from an actual incident from earlier that afternoon. Szwed writes that Festival organizer Alan Lomax had asked Texas folklorist Mack McCormick, discoverer of Lightnin' Hopkins, to find a Texas prison gang to bring up to Newport to sing work songs, but the Texas Attorney General would not allow it, so McCormick had rounded up a group of ex-convicts. Since they had never performed together in front of an audience, much less a microphone, McCormick wanted to accustom them to the stage before the concert. "But Bob Dylan's electric band had been rehearsing for some time and refused to leave. 'I was trying to tell Dylan, we need the stage', McCormick said. 'He continued to ignore me. So I went over to the junction box and pulled out the cords. Then he listened'."
Bruce Jackson, another director of the Newport Folk Festival, called the incident "the myth of Newport". Jackson was present at Dylan's 1965 performance and in 2002 reviewed an audio tape of it. Jackson contends that the booing was directed at Peter Yarrow (also a member of the Festival's Board), who upset the crowd when he attempted to keep Dylan's spot to its proper length; Jackson maintains there's nothing to indicate the crowd disliked Dylan's music, electrified or not.
Al Kooper has argued that the boos were brought on by the short duration of Dylan's set, not the fact that Dylan had gone electric. He said: "The reason they booed is because he only played for fifteen minutes, when everybody else played for forty-five minutes or an hour. They were feeling ripped off. Wouldn't you? They didn't give a shit about us being electric. They just wanted more." According to performers Ian & Sylvia Tyson, it was "an angry, startled reaction" but that "it was a hostile audience" that year for other performers also.
Joe Boyd, responsible for the sound mixing at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, said in an interview with Richie Unterberger in 2007: "I think there were a lot of people who were upset about the rock band, but I think it was pretty split. I think probably more people liked it than didn't. But there was certainly a lot of shouting and a lot of arguing, and a sound which, you can hear in a lot of ballparks. You used to get this confusion when Bill Skowron used to come up to the plate for the Yankees, 'cause his nickname was Moose. And everybody used to go, "MOOSE!" And it sounded like they were booing him. Because you don't get the articulation of the consonant, so that a crowd shouting "more, more, more" at the end of Dylan's three songs sounded very much like booing. I've heard recently a recording of that night, and it doesn't sound to me like booing so much as a roar, just a kind of general hubbub between songs, and during Yarrow's attempt to get Dylan back on stage... I really wouldn't be prepared to say it was 50-50, or two thirds/one third, or whatever. But I think that there was a segment of the audience, somewhere between a quarter and a half, that was dismayed or horrified or varying degrees of unhappy about what he was doing."
In 2007, documentary director Murray Lerner released on DVD his complete footage of Dylan's three appearances at Newport: The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan Live at the Newport Folk Festival 1963–1965. When interviewed by Mojo magazine, Lerner was asked: "There’s been a lot of debate over the years as to who exactly was doing the booing and who were they booing? Dylan? The organisers? The shortness of the set?" Lerner replied: "It's a good question. When we showed the film at The New York Film Festival [in October 2007] one kid gets up and says, 'About this booing... I was sitting right in front of the stage, there was no booing in the audience whatsoever. There was booing from the performers'. So I said, Well, I don't think you're right. Then another kid gets up and says 'I was a little further back and it was the press section that was booing, not the audience', and I said, Well, I don't think you're right. A third guy gets up and says 'I was there, and there was no question, it was the audience that was booing and there was no booing from the stage'. It was fascinating. People remember hearing what they thought they should hear. I think they were definitely booing Dylan and a little bit Pete Yarrow because he was so flustered. He was not expecting that audience's reaction and he was concerned about Bob’s image, since they were part of the same family of artists through Al Grossman. But I absolutely think that they were booing Dylan going electric."
Dylan appears to have believed the booing represented disapproval of his new sound. Interviewed in San Francisco, on December 3, 1965, Dylan was asked whether he was "surprised the first time the boos came?" He responded: "That was at Newport. Well, I did this very crazy thing, I didn't know what was going to happen, but they certainly booed, I'll tell you that. You could hear it all over the place.... I mean, they must be pretty rich, to be able to go some place and boo. I couldn't afford it if I was in their shoes."
Dylan's Newport guitar re-discovered and sold
In July 2012, an episode of the PBS series, History Detectives, recounted the story of New Jersey resident Dawn Peterson who claimed the Fender Stratocaster Dylan played at Newport was in her possession. She explained that Dylan had left the guitar on a plane piloted by her father, Victor Quinto, in 1965. In the program, vintage-instrument specialist Andy Babiuk is convinced the guitar in question was the one played at Newport. Lyrics of songs in the guitar case are identified as Dylan's work by Dylan memorabilia collector Jeff Gold. Dylan attorney Orin Snyder, denied the authenticity of the guitar in a statement: "Bob has possession of the electric guitar he played at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965." Snyder added, "He did own several other Stratocaster guitars that were stolen from him around that time, as were some handwritten lyrics."
On July 26, 2015 the guitar was publicly played for the first time in fifty years during a tribute set at the Newport Folk Festival honoring the 50th Anniversary of Dylan plugging in at Newport. The tribute set included fronted by Gillian Welch, Dave Rawlings, Willie Watson, the New Orleans Preservation Hall Band, Jason Isbell, and several others. Isbell played Dylan's guitar during the tribute set and Newport Folk Festival producer Jay Sweet was quoted as saying "Dylan's guitar is home."
New York City concert, August 28, 1965
The next concert Dylan played after his Newport performance was on August 28, 1965, at Forest Hills Stadium, in Queens, New York. Dylan appears to have believed that the booing at Newport was a consequence of some fans disliking his electric sound. Photographer Daniel Kramer, who accompanied Dylan to the Forest Hills concert, wrote: "Dylan held a conference with the musicians who were going to accompany him in the second half of the concert. He told them that they should expect anything to happen—he probably was remembering what occurred at Newport. He told them that the audience might yell and boo, and that they should not be bothered by it. Their job was to make the best music they were capable of, and let whatever happened happen."
Musician Tony Glover, in his liner notes for the Bob Dylan Live 1966 album, quotes a contemporary account of the concert from Variety: "Bob Dylan split 15,000 of his fans down the middle at Forest hills Tennis Stadium Sunday night... The most influential writer-performer on the pop music scene during the past decade, Dylan has apparently evolved too fast for some of his young followers, who are ready for radical changes in practically everything else... repeating the same scene that occurred during his performance at the Newport Folk Festival, Dylan delivered a round of folk-rock songs but had to pound his material against a hostile wall of anti-claquers, some of whom berated him for betraying the cause of folk music."
Dylan's "World Tour", 1965–1966
The polarised responses of Dylan's fans were exacerbated by the structure of his concerts in late 1965 and 1966; the first half would be 'folk,' Dylan solo accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and harmonica; with the second half 'rock,' Dylan and the Hawks with electric guitars and a full rock and roll combo. The rock segment was often greeted with hostility, as seen in shows in Sheffield and Newcastle upon Tyne in No Direction Home. Footage from the Manchester concert, at the end of that film, includes the infamous "Judas" heckling incident. During a quiet moment in between songs an audience member shouts loudly: "Judas!" (Keith Butler) Dylan replies: "I don't believe you, you're a liar" before telling his band to "Play it fucking loud!" as they launch into "Like a Rolling Stone". This incident was recorded, and the full concert was eventually released in 1998 as Live 1966: The "Royal Albert Hall" Concert in Dylan's Bootleg Series. One fan who claimed to have shouted "Judas!" was John Cordwell; when interviewed by Andy Kershaw he explained:
- "I think most of all I was angry that Dylan... not that he'd played electric, but that he'd played electric with a really poor sound system. It was not like it is on the record [the official album]. It was a wall of mush. That, and it seemed like a cavalier performance, a throwaway performance compared with the intensity of the acoustic set earlier on. There were rumblings all around me and the people I was with were making noises and looking at each other. It was a build-up."
Another claimant to the "Judas!" shout was Keith Butler, a then-student at Keele University. Butler's presence was documented in the film Eat the Document, when the then 21-year-old was filmed leaving the Manchester Free Trade Hall, saying "Any pop group could produce better rubbish than that! It was a bloody disgrace! He's a traitor!" In 1999, he took part in a BBC Radio documentary about Live 1966, and asked about his reaction at the time, he replied, "I kind of think: 'You silly young bugger.'"
In 2012, Dylan referred to the incident while addressing criticism that he hadn't clearly acknowledged his lyrical sources for his new album Tempest:
- Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff. It's an old thing — it's part of the tradition. It goes way back. These are the same people that tried to pin the name Judas on me. Judas, the most hated name in human history! If you think you've been called a bad name, try to work your way out from under that. Yeah, and for what? For playing an electric guitar? As if that is in some kind of way equitable [sic] to betraying our Lord and delivering him up to be crucified. All those evil motherfuckers can rot in hell.
- Bringing It All Back Home
- Highway 61 Revisited
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- Paul Simon suggested that Dylan's early compositions virtually took over the folk genre: "[Dylan's] early songs were very rich ... with strong melodies. 'Blowin' in the Wind' has a really strong melody. He so enlarged himself through the folk background that he incorporated it for a while. He defined the genre for a while." quoted in Fong-Torres 1973, p. 424.
- In 1964, Irwin Silber, the editor of Sing Out!, had published an "Open Letter to Bob Dylan", criticising Dylan for stepping away from political songwriting: "I saw at Newport how you had somehow lost contact with people. Some of the paraphernalia of fame were getting in your way." Sing Out!, November 1964, quoted in Shelton 2003, p. 313
- In the September 1965 issue of Sing Out!, singer Ewan MacColl wrote: "Our traditional songs and ballads are the creations of extraordinarily talented artists working inside disciplines formulated over time... 'But what of Bobby Dylan?' scream the outraged teenagers... Only a completely non-critical audience, nourished on the watery pap of pop music, could have fallen for such tenth-rate drivel." Quoted in Shelton 2003, p. 313
- Miller 1981, p. 220
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