In June 1965, Bob Dylan went "electric" at the Newport Folk Festival. It was his third appearance at the festival, but his first time using an electric guitar and amplifier, accompanied by an electric backup band. It was an improvised move on Dylan's part, who planned the switch to amplification just one night before his set. He likely had no idea that his departure from the norm would be discussed and argued over for years to come by historians and fans of both folk music and rock.
History in the Making
There were a couple of fateful events leading up to that controversial moment at Newport. One year earlier at the same festival, Ronnie Gilbert of The Weavers addressed the audience while introducing Bob Dylan to the stage, "And here he is...Take him, you know him, he's yours." Bob Dylan admitted years later in a 2004 Memoir called Chronicles: Volume 1 that he, "...failed to sense the ominous foreboding in the introduction." Dylan also felt that Gilbert and the fans of his traditional folk style were being overly possessive of him. A few months before Newport, his fifth studio recording Bringing It All Back Home was released. The album blended folk with some rock devices in the songwriting and half of the recorded songs were amplified. Finally, about a month before the festival, Dylan recorded the iconic single, “Like a Rolling Stone”. The song was released just five days before his now infamous set at Newport.
Causing an Uproar
Dylan played a short set in a small mansion at Newport. He opened with the traditional protest song “Maggie's Farm” and used an amplified Fender Stratocaster. His backup band, which included members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, were also amplified.
The audience's reaction to the electrified set was instantaneous, with boos and yelling filling the venue. Some have since argued that the source of dismay was the poor sound quality - the amplified instruments simply drowned out Dylan's vocals. Others say the set was much shorter than other performances that year and fans wanted Dylan to continue playing. However most agree the ultimate cause of the booing that continued throughout the set was precipitated by a sense of betrayal that fans of the Newport Folk Festival's golden child had abandoned them.
He continued his brief set with “Like A Rolling Stone” to further noise and discontent from the fans. After his third song, “Phantom Engineer,” Dylan and his accompanying band left the stage.
An Electrifying Legacy
It’s no coincidence that a defining characteristic of rock and roll is an overt sense of rebellion. Rock had many hurdles to overcome before it gained universal social acceptance. Bob Dylan got a taste of this reluctance in 1965. Subsequent concerts that year were met with further boos, shouts and cries of betrayal.
He was not the first performer to go electric at Newport, but his move was significant at the time because fans felt he was an icon, their spokesman of the Folk and Protest movement. However, in many ways Dylan typified rock before he actually made the switch. He wanted to change the world, but he was not a joiner or a conformist. He was attempting new and different methods, a definitive departure from traditional folk ideals. This all occurred in a time before Vietnam, hippies and psychedelia. Rock was still finding itself as a genre and Bob Dylan would ultimately aid in that definition.
Did You Know
The guitar played by Bob Dylan in his famous Newport Folk Festival electric set was sold at auction in 2013 for $965,000. Dylan left his guitar, a 1964 Fender Stratocaster sunburst, and a hard case (containing some handwritten lyrics) on a private plane shortly after Newport. The pilot attempted to return the guitar but Dylan's management company never returned his calls. Eventually the pilot's daughter took the guitar to PBS's History Detectives television program who verified the guitar's authenticity. Christie's Auction House placed the guitar, case and lyrics up for sale with an estimate of $300,000-$500,000. The unnamed purchaser went well beyond Christie's estimate to take the infamous guitar home, making it the most expensive guitar ever sold at auction at the time. It has since been surpassed by a few guitars, including Kurt Cobain's MTV Unplugged acoustic guitar, a 1959 Martin D-18E.