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Electric Dylan controversy

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Dylan performing "Like a Rolling Stone" with a backing band at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival

By 1965, Bob Dylan was the 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 the media to label him the "spokesman of a generation".[1]

In March 1965, Dylan released his fifth album, Bringing It All Back Home. Side one features him backed by a rock band, while side two features him accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. On July 20, 1965, he released his single "Like a Rolling Stone" featuring a more fully integrated folk rock sound. On July 25, 1965, he performed his first concert with electric instruments at the Newport Folk Festival, joined by pianist Barry Goldberg and of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, guitarist Mike Bloomfield, bassist Jerome Arnold and drummer Sam Lay, and with Al Kooper playing organ on "Like a Rolling Stone". Some sections of the audience booed the performance. Members of the folk movement criticized him for moving away from political songwriting and for performing with a rock band, including Irwin Silber[a 2] and Ewan MacColl.[2] Dylan continued his trend towards rock music on his next two albums, Highway 61 Revisited (1965) and Blonde on Blonde (1966).

On subsequent tours throughout 1965 and 1966, his electric sets (now backed by the Hawks) were often met with derisiveness from the audience. Crowds became particularly acrimonious during a British tour, including an oft-cited incident in Manchester, where a member of the crowd shouted "Judas!" at Dylan. Shows from this tour have been documented in several Dylan documentaries, including 2005's No Direction Home. Over time, Dylan continued to evolve musically, turning to country music on Nashville Skyline (1969), and drifting through numerous styles throughout the rest of his career. Retrospectively, his electric period has come to be recognized by critics and fans as producing some of his best-received music, and his controversial performance at Newport has been considered a pivotal moment in the development of folk rock.[3][4]

Newport 1965 set[edit]

Fans were used to seeing Dylan perform alone, with acoustic guitar and harmonica (1963)

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.[5] At the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, Dylan performed "With God on Our Side" and "Mr Tambourine Man".[6] Positive reviews of Dylan's 1964 performance were accompanied by criticisms of Dylan's antics and dismissive nature;[7] one critic wrote that "being stoned had rarely prevented his giving winning performances, but he was clearly out of control".[8]

On Saturday, July 24, 1965, Dylan performed three acoustic songs, "All I Really Want to Do", "If You Gotta Go, Go Now", and "Love Minus Zero/No Limit", at a Newport workshop.[9] 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 Saturday that he would challenge the Festival by performing with a fully amplified band the following evening. 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."[10] Dylan assembled a band and rehearsed that night at a mansion being used by festival organizer George Wein.

On the night of Sunday, July 25, Dylan's appearance was between Cousin Emmy and the Sea Island singers, two traditional acts.[11] Dylan's band 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, bassist Jerome Arnold and drummer Sam Lay, also appeared at Newport, as well as Barry Goldberg on piano.

Footage of the Newport performance appears 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, both boos and cheers are heard a few bars into Dylan's first song, "Maggie's Farm", and continue 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".[12] Dylan was said to have "electrified one half of his audience, and electrocuted the other".[13]

After "Phantom Engineer", Dylan and the band left the stage. Booing and clapping are 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?"[14] Dylan then asked the audience for "an E harmonica". Within a few moments, a clatter of harmonicas hit the stage. Dylan performed two songs on acoustic guitar for the audience: "Mr Tambourine Man" followed by "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue", his farewell to the Newport Folk Festival. The crowd exploded with applause, 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.[15]

Audience reaction[edit]

Joe Boyd, who worked with Paul Rothchild on the sound mixing for the festival, described the audience reaction in his memoir, White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s.[16]

By today's standards, the volume wasn't particularly high, but in 1965 it was probably the loudest thing anyone in the audience had ever heard. A buzz of shock and amazement ran through the crowd. When the [first] song finished, there was a roar that contained many sounds. Certainly boos were included, but they weren't in a majority. There were shouts of delight and triumph and also of derision and outrage. The musicians didn't wait to interpret it, they just plunged straight into the second song.

Filmmaker Murray Lerner and others present at Newport argued that the boos were from outraged folk fans who disliked Dylan playing an electric guitar. Others present, including musician Al Kooper, disagreed, arguing that the audience were upset by poor sound quality and the short duration of the set.[17] "The reason they booed is that he only played for fifteen minutes when everybody else played for forty-five minutes or an hour," Kooper would later recall. "They were feeling ripped off. Wouldn't you? They didn't give a shit about us being electric. They just wanted more."[18][19] 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.[13]

Boyd 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."[20]

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 organizers? 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."[21]

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."[22]

Controversy around Pete Seeger's reaction[edit]

Poor sound quality was the reason musician Pete Seeger, who was 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."[23] 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.[23] Rumors that Seeger actually had an axe, or that a festival board member pulled or wanted to pull out the entire electrical wiring system[14] 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 Charles, who wore a hearing aid.[24] 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".[25]

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'."[26]

Joe Boyd recounted events differently in his memoir, "White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s".[27] The Texas Prisoners Worksong group had been discovered by musicologist Bruce Jackson, who got permission to bring six of them to Newport. A tree stump was placed on the stage which they chopped with axes as they sang. During the performance, a mic cable disconnected. Boyd ducked in and reconnected it, earning a nod of approval from Seeger. Boyd speculates that somehow those ingredients, "Seeger, axes, cables...got muddled up".

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.[28]

New York City concert, August 28, 1965[edit]

The next concert Dylan played after his Newport performance was on August 28, 1965, at Forest Hills Stadium, in Queens, New York.[29] Dylan appears to have believed that the booing at Newport was a consequence of some fans disliking his electric sound.[30] 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."[31]

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."[32]

Dylan's "World Tour", 1965–1966[edit]

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 "Judas" heckling incident. During a quiet moment in between songs an audience member shouts loudly: "Judas!" 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".[33] 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 said:

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.[34]

Another claimant to the "Judas!" shout was Keith Butler, who was a student at Keele University.[35] Butler's presence was documented in the film Eat the Document, when the 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.'"[36]

In 2012, Dylan referred to the incident while addressing criticism that he had not 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 equatable to betraying our Lord and delivering him up to be crucified. All those evil motherfuckers can rot in hell.[37]

Newport 1966[edit]

Despite the mixed reaction afforded to Dylan at the 1965 Newport festival, several electric bands appeared at the following year's event, including the Lovin' Spoonful, Howlin' Wolf, Chuck Berry and the Blues Project.[38] The groups were well received and received no pushback over their appearance.[39][40] In an article recounting the festival for The New York Times, the critic Robert Shelton suggested that the Lovin' Spoonful's warm reception "reflected the growing acceptance of folk-rock and other amalgamations of contemporary folk songs with electric instruments".[40]

Rediscovery and sale of Dylan's Newport guitar[edit]

The guitar Dylan played at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

In July 2012, an episode of the PBS series History Detectives recounted the story of New Jersey resident Dawn Peterson, who said she had the Fender Stratocaster Dylan played at Newport. She explained that Dylan had left the guitar on a plane piloted by her father, Victor Quinto, in 1965. An instrument specialist was convinced that the guitar was genuine, and lyrics of songs in the guitar case were identified as Dylan's work by a memorabilia collector. However, Dylan attorney Orin Snyder said that Dylan still had the guitar he played at Newport, and said: "He did own several other Stratocaster guitars that were stolen from him around that time, as were some handwritten lyrics."[41]

Dylan and Peterson settled a legal dispute over the guitar, and in December 2013 it was sold by Christie's auction house in New York for $965,000.[42] It was purchased by Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts football team.[43] On July 26, 2015, the guitar was publicly played for the first time in 50 years during a tribute set at the Newport Folk Festival honoring the 50th anniversary of Dylan's performance at Newport. The tribute set included Gillian Welch, Dave Rawlings, Willie Watson, the New Orleans Preservation Hall Jazz 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".[43]


  1. ^ Paul Simon suggested that Dylan's early compositions virtually took over the folk genre. Fong-Torres 1973, p. 424
  2. ^ In 1964, Irwin Silber, the editor of Sing Out!, had published an "Open Letter to Bob Dylan" criticizing him for stepping away from political song writing Shelton 2003, p. 313


  1. ^ Miller 1981, p. 220
  2. ^ Shelton 2003, p. 313
  3. ^ McCleary, John Bassett (2004). Hippie Dictionary: A Cultural Encyclopedia of the 1960s and 1970s. Ten Speed Press. p. 186. ISBN 1-58008-547-4.
  4. ^ Unterberger, Richie (2002). Turn! Turn! Turn!: The '60s Folk-Rock Revolution. Backbeat Books. p. 1. ISBN 0-87930-703-X.
  5. ^ Heylin 1996, p. 46
  6. ^ Heylin 1996, p. 62
  7. ^ Hughes, John (2013). Invisible Now: Bob Dylan in the 1960s. Ashgate.
  8. ^ Shelton, Robert. No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan. Backbeat Books. p. 181.
  9. ^ Dylan's performances were filmed by Murray Lerner and included in the DVD The Other Side of the Mirror.
  10. ^ Sounes 2001, pp. 180–181
  11. ^ Shelton 2003, p. 302
  12. ^ Bjorner 2012
  13. ^ a b Gilliland 1969, show 32, track 1.
  14. ^ a b Robert Shelton, No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan, New York, 1986, pp. 301–304
  15. ^ Read, Dave (2008-08-30). "Bob Dylan concert review – Newport Folk Festival, Aug. 3, 2002". berkshirelinks.com. Archived from the original on 2019-08-02. Retrieved 2018-07-27.
  16. ^ Boyd, Joe (2007). White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s. Serpents Tail Classics. p. 102.
  17. ^ Kooper, Al (2005). No Direction Home (DVD). Paramount Pictures.
  18. ^ Williamson, N. The Rough Guide to Bob Dylan, (1st ed., 2004), p. 54
  19. ^ Kooper, Al (2008). Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards (Updated ed.). New York: Backbeat Books. pp. 38–39. ISBN 978-0-87930-922-0.
  20. ^ Unterberger, Richie (February 26, 2007). "Interview with Joe Boyd". richieunterberger.com. Retrieved April 4, 2012.
  21. ^ "Exclusive: Dylan at Newport – Who Booed?". Mojo. 2007-10-25. Archived from the original on 2009-04-12. Retrieved 2011-01-03.
  22. ^ Television Press Conference, KQED, San Francisco, reprinted in Cott 2006, p. 73
  23. ^ a b Seeger, Pete (2005). No Direction Home (DVD). Paramount Pictures.
  24. ^ Cohen, John (2005). No Direction Home (DVD). Paramount Pictures.
  25. ^ Dylan, Bob (2005). No Direction Home (DVD). Paramount Pictures.
  26. ^ John Szwed, Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World (New York: Viking, 2010), p. 354. The story also appears in Michael Hall's "Mack McCormick Still has the Blues", Texas Monthly, April, 2002.
  27. ^ Boyd, Joe (2007). White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s. Serpents Tail Classics. pp. 95–6, 101.
  28. ^ Jackson, Bruce (2002-08-26). "The myth of Newport '65: It wasn't Bob Dylan they were booing". Buffalo Report. Archived from the original on 2008-01-06. Retrieved 2007-01-25.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  29. ^ Heylin 1996, pp. 80–81
  30. ^ Egan 2010, p. 57
  31. ^ Kramer 1991, p. 130
  32. ^ Glover, Tony (1998). Live 1966 (CD booklet). Bob Dylan. New York, New York: Columbia Records. p. 28.
  33. ^ Glover, Tony (1998). Live 1966 (CD booklet). Bob Dylan. New York, New York: Columbia Records. p. 7.
  34. ^ Kershaw, Andy (2005-09-22). "Bob Dylan: How I found the man who shouted 'Judas'". The Independent.
  35. ^ Gray 2006, pp. 365–366
  36. ^ Williamson, N. The Rough Guide to Bob Dylan (1st ed., 2004), p. 69, ISBN 1-84353-139-9
  37. ^ "Bob Dylan Strikes Back at Critics". Rolling Stone. 12 September 2012. Archived from the original on September 13, 2012. Retrieved 14 September 2012.
  38. ^ Wald 2015, p. 298.
  39. ^ Lenhoff & Robertson 2019, p. 126.
  40. ^ a b Unterberger 2003, p. 266.
  41. ^ Greene, Andy (July 11, 2012). "Experts: Bob Dylan's Long-Lost Newport Folk Festival Electric Guitar Found In New Jersey". Rolling Stone. Retrieved July 12, 2012.
  42. ^ "Bob Dylan's Fender Stratocaster sells for nearly $1m". BBC News. December 6, 2013. Retrieved June 15, 2014.
  43. ^ a b Grebey , James (July 25, 2015). "Bob Dylan's Electric Guitar Returns to Newport Folk Festival After 50 Years". Spin.com. Retrieved July 28, 2015.


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