Electric Dylan controversy
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Having become synonymous with acoustic folk music and having performed as a professional musician with little instrumentation prior to the incident in question, singer-songwriter Bob Dylan was the subject of much controversy at Newport Folk Festival on Sunday July 25, 1965. During his performance Dylan "went electric", by playing with an electric blues band in concert for the first time. This seeming rejection of what had gone before made Dylan unpopular in parts of the folk community, alienating some fans, and is considered to have deeply affected both folk and rock 'n' roll.
Newport 1965 set
In the American folk music revival taking place at the time, Dylan had emerged as one of the country's leading young folk singers, and was greeted warmly at the 1963 and 1964 Newport festivals. He was the Sunday-night headliner in 1965, and had just released the album Bringing It All Back Home (in March), which was half-electric and half-acoustic. Dylan performed three songs acoustically ("All I Really Want to Do", "If You Gotta Go, Go Now", and "Love Minus Zero/No Limit") at a Newport workshop on Saturday, July 24, before he told organist Al Kooper that he wanted to play with a pickup band the following evening.
The band that went on stage on Sunday included Dylan (vocals, electric guitar), Mike Bloomfield (guitar), Sam Lay (drums), Jerome Arnold (bass guitar), Al Kooper (organ) and Barry Goldberg (piano) - most of these were members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, also playing that weekend. They had practiced with Dylan all Saturday night in a nearby mansion, but according to Kooper, "The Butterfield Band didn't have the best chemistry to back Dylan ... It [the practice] was a tough night - complicated and ugly".
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 loud booing and sporadic cheering begins just a few bars into Dylan's first song, "Maggie's Farm", and continues throughout the second, "Like A Rolling Stone" and "Phantom Engineer", (which evolved into "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry" released on Highway 61 Revisited).
After playing "Phantom Engineer", Dylan told the band, "Let's go, man. That's all", and walked off-stage. The sound of loud booing and clapping can be heard in the background. Peter Yarrow returned to the microphone and begged Dylan to continue performing. Apparently desperate to appease the audience, he assured them that Dylan was "just getting his axe" even before it was clear whether or not he was willing to return solo.
Dylan was, by some accounts, highly distressed. Eventually coaxed back onstage by Yarrow and Joan Baez, he realized he didn't have the right harmonica, and lashed out at Yarrow--"What are you doing to me," he protested.  Yarrow's public hectoring of Dylan to return to the stage was clearly a spur of the moment ploy to soothe the crowd. The band couldn't return (Kooper admitted they had only mastered the three songs they played), so Dylan was essentially being forced to perform an impromptu acoustic set on a night when plugging in was a major artistic statement. And Dylan, his voice betraying real nervousness and distress, had to beg the audience for 'an E harmonica'. Within a few moments a clatter of harmonicas hit the stage. He snapped one up out the darkness (apparently an F, since he put on a capo) and returned to the spotlight with a Chaplinesque flourish that got a laugh, but certainly the atmosphere was still tense. He then sang two songs to the now-silent audience, "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" and "Mr. Tambourine Man", clearly relishing the kiss-off theme of the former. The crowd exploded with applause at the end, calling for more. Dylan did not return to the Newport festival for 37 years, and in an oblique nod to the events that transpired in 1965, his 2002 appearance was one of only three times he's performed in a wig and fake beard (the others were the music videos for his 2003 song "Cross the Green Mountain" and the 2009 single "Must Be Santa".)
Reasons for the crowd's reaction
The traditional explanation is that the boos were from outraged folk fans, who disliked Dylan using an electric guitar. An alternative account claims that audience members were upset by poor sound quality, and the surprisingly short set.
The sound quality was certainly the reason Pete Seeger (backstage) disliked the performance: he says he went to the sound system and told the 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 wanted to pull out the entire electrical wiring system, remain unsubstantiated. In the film No Direction Home, John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers claimed Seeger wanted to silence the band because it was frightening his elderly father Charlie (who had 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".
The crowd's motivation is unclear. But Bruce Jackson, who was a director of the Newport Folk Festival, called the incident "the myth of Newport". Professor Jackson was present at Dylan's 1965 performance, and in 2002 reviewed an audio tape of it; he contends the booing was directed at Peter Yarrow, who upset the crowd when he attempted to keep Dylan's spot to its proper length rather than let the crowd hear more of his music; Professor Jackson maintains there's nothing to indicate the crowd disliked Dylan's music, electrified or not.
To Robbie Robertson, 'The Dylan's gone electric' debate seemed irrational: "It seemed kind of a funny statement to me at the time, that somebody's gone electric. It was like, Jeez, somebody's just bought a television."
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 reaction and he was concerned about Bob’s image, success creatively and commercially 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 himself said, "I had no idea why they were booing ... I don't think anybody was there having a negative response to those songs, though. Whatever it was about, it wasn't about anything that they were hearing." Dylan's set was not the last of the weekend: "sandwiched between Cousin Emmy and the Sea Island singers, two very traditional acts,...Dylan had to do his bit at the appointed spot, without a sound check for his pick-up band".
The reason for negative reactions at future Dylan shows was much clearer: Many of his fans disliked his decision to turn his back on what some saw as the "true" music of folk.
What made fans' relationship with Dylan more complicated was the structure of his concerts in late 1965 and 1966; the first half would be 'folk' (Dylan on acoustic guitar and harmonica), the second, 'rock' (with electric guitars), and 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 Free Trade Hall concert, at the end of that film, includes the infamous Judas heckle incident. During a quiet moment in between songs, an audience member shouts very loudly and clearly: "Judas!", to which Dylan replies: "I don't believe you, you're a liar" before telling his band to "Play it fucking loud!" as they begin to play an acidic version of "Like a Rolling Stone".When interviewed by Andy Kershaw about the heckle, John Cordwell, the man who had shouted, 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."
Others, however, believe that the identity of the heckler was one Keith Butler.
Dylan did not reconsider his decision to 'go electric', as band arrangements featured on many of his albums afterwards; the success of "Like a Rolling Stone" showed that there was still an eager fanbase for Dylan's songs.
- Bringing It All Back Home
- Highway 61 Revisited
- No Direction Home
- The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival
- Folk rock
- ^ Rollingstone.com: "Dylan Goes Electric in 1965"
- ^ Ibid., Rollingstone.com
- ^ Seven Ages of Rock - Events - Dylan goes electric
- ^ Robert Shelton, No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan, New York, 1986, pp301-304]
- ^ Ibid., Rollingstone.com
- ^ Speaking in No Direction Home (2005)
- ^ Robert Shelton, No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan, New York, 1986, pp301-304
- ^ Buffalo Report: Bruce Jackson's account of the audience reaction to Bob Dylan
- ^ Howard Sounes, Down the Highway: The Life Of Bob Dylan. Doubleday. 2001 p228 ISBN 0-552-99929-6
- ^ "Exclusive: Dylan at Newport - Who Booed?". Mojo. 2007-10-25. http://www.mojo4music.com/blog/2007/10/exclusive_dylan_at_newport_who.html.
- ^ Bob Dylan, speaking in No Direction Home (2005)
- ^ Ibid., Shelton
- ^ No Direction Home DVD, 2005.
- ^ Glover, Tony (1998). Bob Dylan Live 1966 Liner Notes. New York, New York: Columbia Records. pp. 7.
- ^ The Independent
- ^ Bob Dylan Who's Who - Keith 'Judas!' Butler
- Guardian.co.uk: "Bob Dylan's return to the scene of the crime", August 2, 2002
- Queens University of Charlotte: Extract from Robert Shelton, No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan, New York, 1986