When a young and daring Bob Dylan entered the stage at the Newport Folk Festival on July 25th 1965, nobody expected him to be without his trusty Gibson “Nick Lucas” model acoustic guitar. Instead, Bob Dylan took the stage with a Fender Stratocaster. He plugged-in for the first time on stage and opened with an electric version of “Maggie’s Farm”. The rest was history.
Prior to this iconic moment in music history, Bob Dylan was the embodiment of folk music in America throughout the early 1960’s. His simple acoustic arrangements and topical lyrics which highlighted his political objection proved popular amongst many Americans. Especially the wave of growing nonconformists. Songs such as, “Only a Pawn in Their Game” and “Who Killed Davey Moore?” resonated with his bohemian peers and anti-establishment followers.
By 1964, Dylan began to change musically despite his growing folklore. Songs such as “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “It Ain’t Me, Babe” highlighted this transition. As well as his ability to expand his songwriting from the political lyrics of his early career.
Building up to his 1965 performance, Dylan gained more widespread popularity. To the folk purists, they saw this rise in acclaim and transition away from outspoken political songs as a sign of Dylan selling out and joining the establishment. Although it was not until his 1965 Newport Folk Festival performance that this negative view of Dylan became more apparent.
Newport Folk Festival 1965
It is hard to understand why Bob Dylan went electric during this specific festival but there is one interesting theory. Apparently, Bob Dylan and John Lennon had exchanged words a few months before. Where Dylan criticised The Beatles’ music for lacking any lyrical substance.
In which John Lennon responded to Dylan suggesting he did not have any substance behind his sound! Some believe this instigated Dylan’s ventures into the more electric rock ‘n’ roll world.
Supported by Al Kooper and The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Dylan took the stage with his Strat in hand. Opening with a rowdy version of “Maggie’s Farm,” it did not take long for the the booing to begin. Again, the boos rang out from the crowd through “Like a Rolling Stone.” After finishing the next song “Phantom Engineer” a distressed and frustrated Dylan walked off stage.
A confused Peter Yarrow stepped to the mic and said, “Bobby was…yes he will do another tune I’m sorry, if you call him back”. He then in a desperate manner asked, “Bobby can you do another song please?” With the apparent help of Joan Baez, Dylan re-entered the stage holding an acoustic guitar and pleading for an E harmonica.
When one is thrown onto the stage, almost apologetically Dyan performed a classic rendition of “Mr. Tambourine Man” which steadied the crowd. It is bizarre watching Dylan do a complete turnaround and revert back to his acoustic guitar. Completely abandoning his initial and bold musical statement.
To this day there is still uncertainty surrounding the cause of such outrage. Many are convinced that it was the shock and apparent disservice to authentic folk music by playing an electric guitar at such an authentic music festival. Others simply put it down to the apparent poor sound quality which drowned out Dylan’s usually powerful vocals.
The aftermath of Dylan’s electric performance trailed him at his later shows with folk purists continuing to express their distaste and heckle him. It raises the question though that if Bob Dylan never transitioned into the realm of rock ‘n’ roll would he have ever become the global music icon he is known as today?