When Dylan Went Electric

Blues guitarist and musical historian Elijah Wald explains the booing at Bob Dylan’s 1965 Newport Folk Festival performance.

PROVO, Utah (Oct. 12, 2016)—The story of Bob Dylan is that of a talented young songwriter/poet who broke the rules of folk music by pulling out an electric guitar at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Popular retellings explain that Dylan was booed off the stage by the conservative “folkies” who did not understand that rock was the next big thing.

Elijah Wald, author of Dylan Goes Electric! sees the traditional story a little differently. “It’s a story written in a particular moment with a particular aim–to establish rock as a mature art form that educated grownups might pay attention to,” Wald said in his lecture for the BYU Humanities Center. “The decision to pick up a Stratocaster rather than an acoustic guitar is not a poetic choice. That’s the choice of a musician and performer.”

Bob Dylan grew up in northern Minnesota in a virtually all white community, but his musical inspiration came from a radio station broadcast from Shreveport, Louisiana which played black singers performing rhythm and blues. “All over the United States there were all these white teenagers who were discovering black music on the radio, and it was like a secret world for them,” explained Wald.

When Dylan went to college he became more interested in folk music. “Folk music had become the collegiate style thanks to the Kingston Trio; fun music like rock and roll, but it was the fun music that the smart kids listened to,” said Wald.  

One of the leading voices in folk music was Pete Seeger. Best known for his authentic hillbilly style and communist ideals, Seeger helped to change the perspective of folk music. Wald explained, “Folk music was the music that the urban proletariat played in their homes. What defines folk music is the communities that make it, not the music itself.”

Seeger worked to organize the Newport Folk Festival, a yearly festival where the headlining bands would each be paid 50 dollars and draw crowds, while the profits earned by these big names would go toward bringing in a rising generation of folk singers and artists that had rarely performed outside their communities.

Dylan was one of those young rising folk singers brought in for the festival of 1963, coming off a stint writing political protest songs for a magazine called Broadside. Just a few months later, Dylan would perform at the March on WashinBob Dylangton. “Dylan was representative of the real people who were out there [fighting for civil rights],” Wald said.

In 1964 came the invasion of British singers performing American-style music. “The Beatles are the only band in the history of music to have the top five songs of the Top 40. No one else has done that before or since,” explained Wald. This marked a turning point for Bob Dylan whose next album, Bringing It All Back Home, included several electric songs and marked Dylan’s break into the US top 10. When the 1965 Newport Folk Festival came around, Dylan returned this time as one of the big stars rather than an unknown protest singer.

Another important event of 1964 was the Freedom Summer in which activists attempted to expand African American voting in the South. Many were hurt and some were killed. This, along with a failure to instate an integrated Mississippi delegation to the Democratic Convention, marked a split in the trust between black and white students who had been working together for civil rights. Wald stated, “The message was no longer unity: it was black power.”  

When Bob Dylan took the stage in 1965, he sang his top hit “Like a Rolling Stone” in loud electric volume. The lyrics, “How does it feel to be on your own?” felt extremely poignant to an audience that had just experienced such a difficult year.

This song choice was one reason that Dylan was booed off the stage, another being that his group, the Butterfield Blues Band, was too loud and rocking for the festival. “[Out of all the Chicago blues bands] the first one to make it to Newport was a group of white college kids,” commented Wald. Dylan’s band was exactly the sort of popular music that Seeger had been trying to avoid.

“This moment has become iconic not because Dylan went electric, but because of the booing,” Wald said. “The rap on Dylan was that he had sold out to be on the Top 40.” However, after being booed out of several locations, “it became the Stravinsky moment; how it was always described. The bright young artist refusing to listen to the people out there because he was ahead of them. That is the moment when rock became art.”

Hannah Sandorf (BA Art History and Curatorial Studies ‘17)

Hannah covers events for the Humanities Center for the College of Humanities. She is a junior pursuing a degree in art history with a minor in art. 

image: Bob Dylan singing at the March on Washington courtesy of Wikimedia Commons