By the time Bob Dylan took the stage at the Newport Folk Festival 50 years ago this July, he had become one of the biggest names in folk music, almost single handedly mainstreaming the genre, and influencing generations of musicians and music fans.
Dylan had been experimenting in the months leading up to his performance in Rhode Island, releasing the album Bringing it All Back Home, which featured songs backed by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and recorded using electric instruments, and then just days before Newport, Dylan released his song “Like a Rolling Stone.”
When he stood in front of the Newport audience, donning a Fender Stratocaster and launching into “Maggie’s Farm,” many were irate, booing Dylan and commenting after that they felt betrayed (though it should be noted there were also cheers). It was a beautiful moment to behold, like something emerging from a chrysalis, or shedding a skin. No longer was Dylan just another Folk musician, he was carving out his place as a musician unbound by genre or style, still able to write thought provoking, poetic songs.
Promoters of the event were angry as well. The late Pete Seeger, a staple in folk music for decades by that point, and an influence on Dylan, is rumored to have tried to cut the power to stage with an ax during Dylan’s performance. Seeger said years later that he’d been upset with the sound quality of the mixing booth and wanted to go over and have them fix the sound, threatening to cut the line because he thought they were butchering Dylan’s work as a musician.
Dylan didn’t kill the folk scene of the 1960s by plugging in. He gave it room to breathe. In the decades since, especially since 2009, Newport has had a significantly more electric line up each year. The festival has embraced Dylan’s ethos by booking bands influenced more by his later albums, and helping continue to push and redefine a genre that is now, for better or worse, in the mainstream.
We still talk about Dylan going electric today not because of how foolish it seems to modern audiences – It’s not. Just look at the fan reaction to Mumford & Sons latest album Wilder Mind, an electric departure from their banjo-heavy Americana style – but because it was a rare opportunity to see an artist confront their audience and challenge their perceptions of who, or what, a musician or band is supposed to be. Who is Bob Dylan? Is he a folk musician? A rock star? A man of religious conviction? Books and documentaries continue to explore these questions and a lot more. But the simple answer is he is all of those things and more.
When Dylan plugged in and turned up the volume, it was a surprise to many no doubt. Most audiences will never see something like that in their lifetime as more and more live event surprises are often decided in the conference rooms of marketing agencies, or after an artist indulges too heavily. Rare is it today that an artist can make a drastic choice to change everything about themselves, do it live, and not care what their audience thinks.
When we look back at Dylan going electric at Newport, it should stand out as a moment when he took control of his art, his persona, and wouldn’t let it be dictated by the conventions of the culture around him. We may never have another Bob Dylan, or another Dylan goes electric moment again, and that’s okay, because we had the one and he did it best anyway.
Words by Craig Robert Brown
Photos by Getty Images