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It’s 1965. After almost a century’s worth of benefits and remarkable improvements to our daily lives, electricity is here to stay. Light bulbs, television, computers the size of a public restroom, and of course, guitar amplifiers, are all part of the conveniences we’re more than happy to take for granted in this modern era. But while musical styles like rock ‘n’ roll, the blues, and soul had all accepted and embraced electricity with open arms, the back-to-the-roots folk music movement in the United States was making its last stand in resistance.
Then comes Bob Dylan. Many of his fans considered him to be the new savior in a long line of revivalists, ushering the communal, traditional, and literary music of acoustic folk back into the mainstream. Yet in one fell swoop at the Newport Folk Festival, 53 years ago today, Dylan would abandon so many of those idealistic, die-hard supporters, right on the festival’s main stage. As a veteran of the festival — Dylan had played to loving audiences in ’63 and ’64 — he was probably the only artist who could’ve pulled off this ultimate protest, but his pedigree didn’t satisfy his harsher critics, who boo’ed throughout the performance.
On the purist side, folk fans argued that Dylan did not have the right to disrupt an important musical event with something that wasn’t unanimously accepted among its patrons. Dylan’s argument, in so many words, was, “who cares?”
So let’s talk about Dylan’s decision to “go electric” and whether he flagrantly disregarded tradition, or whether this was the moment that revealed the festival had already abandoned its own tradition.
Before going much further, we should look at the historical context of amplification and what it meant to members of the folk community. The first sound amplifying unit was invented in 1912 by Lee De Forest, based on prior advancements in amplification used for AM radio transmission. But despite the early invention, electrified versions of acoustic instruments (and the tools needed for them to amplify, capture, edit, print, and distribute their sounds) didn’t really come into play until the 1930s’ big band era. Eventually innovations from Leo Fender and Jim Marshall, to name a few, helped the amplified music market grow both technologically and aesthetically, as their new instruments and amplifiers opened up a world of possibilities for artists.
Culturally, this began to deepen the chasm between modern and traditional music styles. Classical music, as you’d expect, never really adopted electric instruments (though with more experimental composers came the integration of electronics such as synthesized sound and tape into the orchestra). Jazz bands also resisted electric amplification, as did the folk styles of regional communities around North America. Many blues musicians, on the other hand, were quick to embrace amplification. And, of course, rock ‘n’ roll and R&B took amplification to the extreme.
If you were at the cutting edge in the 1950s, you were probably already in love with rock ‘n’ roll (steadily replacing jazz as “the devil’s music”). You were fully cognizant of rock music as a stylistic “choice” rooted in freedom, fun, and curiosity that bridged technology, art, and attitude. It was cool, the kids adored it, but it was a different experience completely from the sacred institutions of acoustic concert music or porch-side traditional music, seen perhaps more as a passing fad.
So when Dylan released his album, Bringing It All Back Home, in March of 1965, which featured one side of songs recorded with an amplified rock band, and the other of acoustic ballads, this bridging of worlds alienated many, but intrigued many more. The album charted as high as #6 on the Billboard Pop chart, and was Dylan’s first ever LP in the Top Ten.
Just five days before his scheduled Newport Folk Festival performance in 1965, he released another single featuring electric guitar, the critically acclaimed “Like a Rolling Stone.” And feeling bothered by condescending remarks about the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s electric performance at an earlier workshop at the festival, the night before his main stage performance, Dylan recruited members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band to join his regular band and prepare a new set featuring some of his electric guitar compositions.
From the moment his band took the stage on July 25, there were waves of both booing and cheering.
A local critic reported that Dylan had “electrified one half of his audience and electrocuted the other.”
The polarizing set stopped after just three songs, with much of the stage time being eaten up by switching and tuning instruments. Dylan eventually decided to return to the stage, playing acoustically (guitar and harmonica) for two more songs. The audience is heard roaring with applause, a steep contrast to the first half of the set. Yikes.
There are a few accounts arguing that the crowd’s booing was less about the introduction of electric instruments as it was about the short, disorganized performance, given Peter Yarrow‘s introduction to the band noted their “limited time.” Other accounts argue that several performers at the festival that year saw somewhat hostile crowd reactions. Dylan maintains that the boos were directed at him for “going electric.” But regardless, it’s certainly true that Dylan’s raucous, rocking set bothered many of the folk festival’s purist organizing committee, and was seen universally as an abandonment of the folk revival’s democratic principles.
Folk music itself is an admirable institution that represents different things to basically every single listener and practitioner “folk” around the world. It’s universally understood to be performed on traditional, acoustic, and oftentimes cheap and accessible instruments. The music preserves ideals and patriotic sentiments; it preserves stories and ways of life and thinking that represent one’s culture; it’s a genre that looks back.
So, even though today we enjoy the comfort and excitement of a mainstream cultural mentality that proudly rewards looking forward, the act of one semi-significant figure attempting to tear an entire institution down with a bit of youthful rebellion would’ve probably annoyed the heck out of you, too — especially if you went to the festival expecting to see a certain type of music and getting something else entirely.
But folk music also preserves our right to protest, and offers a voice for the voiceless to share their stories, which is part of the reason why Bob Dylan’s early songs (inspired largely by Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger) garnered him such a devout following. Folk in the ’60s stood in contrast to the Tin Pan Alley song production line, reclaiming the bard’s ability to write both their own lyrics and accompaniment and solidifying the term “singer-songwriter” as a central identifying feature of the genre.
The phrase “singer-songwriter” initially sprouted up in the beginning of the 20th century, around blues musicians who accompanied themselves using whatever was available (piano, accordion, guitar, harmonica, etc.). Guitar became the inevitable weapon of choice for artists such as Sister Rosetta Tharp, Robert Johnson, Lead Belly, etc. The “singer-songwriter” label came into more popular use during the late ’50s and early ’60s, where creators like Joni Mitchell, Woody Guthrie, Nina Simone, Pete Seeger, and Bob Dylan embraced it as part of their own musical identities.
By the mid-1960s, though, the singer-songwriter sound and folk had become nearly synonymous, and had firmly rooted in the mainstream.
Artists like Peter, Paul and Mary and Simon and Garfunkel had seen huge commercial success and helped turn folk music into a very marketable commodity. Buying a folk album, or attending a prestigious folk festival, you knew just what you’d be listening to (and importantly, you knew what sounds you wouldn’t be hearing).
Singer-songwriter music had uprooted its own origins in the blues and “folk” was becoming the predominantly white, educated music of the middle class.
More than just wanting to shake things up for a staid audience, this is perhaps the more meaningful protest Dylan made in taking the stage with an electric band — rebelling against the commodification and homogenization of a once multicolored musical picture. When rock ‘n’ roll came around and reframed the blues yet again in an energetic, youthful, and electrified package, this may have felt like music’s new democracy. It was but one of many hammers beginning to tap on the glass ceiling that folk music had built above itself.
When something breaks, you will have those who cry over the mess, trying to put the pieces back together, and then you will have those who are interested in learning what comes next, seeing that there is now a “something new” to reach toward. Exploration is frowned upon through the eyes of the complacent, but it sure is exciting and worthwhile for everybody else watching, boos and all.