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Remembering when Bob Dylan went Electric and Killed Folk Music
Independent culture newsletter
Elijah Wald — Dylan Goes Electric! The story of Bob Dylan's iconic electric apostasy at the Newport Folk Festival, set in the context of its turbulent times, Dylan's musical evolution, and the oft-misunderstood folk revival, personified by the oft-misunderstood Pete Seeger. On the evening of July 25, , Bob Dylan took the stage at Newport Folk Festival backed by an electric band and roared into a blistering version of "Maggie's Farm," followed by his new rock hit, "Like a Rolling Stone. Dylan Goes Electric! Based on new interviews, previously untapped sources, and untold hours of unreleased Newport tapes, it provides unexpected additions and insights to a story that has been mythologized but never seriously explored.
These days, it's rare for a performance by a single artist to have such cultural resonance that it becomes emblematic of an era. But Bob Dylan's epochal appearance at the Newport Folk festival backed by an electric blues band is of a different order, thanks partly to the antipathy it roused. It lasted just three songs, but became one of the moments around which music history pivots. As the legend has it, an outraged old guard personified by folk's elder statesman Pete Seeger strove to stop the show — Seeger supposedly attempting to chop through the power cables with an axe — while fans erupted in a conflicted cacophony of boos, cheers and protests against the sheer volume of the performance, as much as what it signified. But it was not simply that Dylan had transgressed the festival's acoustic bias: the intemperate reception was in part a protest that the folk scene's unrivalled laureate had turned his back on the "duty" to protest, in a style of singalong simplicity, in favour of more personal themes, tackled in a more personal language. It was a moment of fracture between artistic modes: as Elijah Wald notes in this absorbing, detailed overview of the event, "the instrumentation connected [Dylan] to Elvis and the Beatles, but the booing connected him to Stravinsky". Wald sets this brief, climactic moment in the context of the folk scene in general, going back to its roots in the hootenanny spirit of the Forties and Fifties, when first the Almanac Singers and then the Weavers both featuring Seeger developed the topical-song style into a commercially viable strain, which the Kingston Trio would take to the top of the charts.
Saturday night is the 50th anniversary of Dylanageddon: the night Bob Dylan savaged the Newport Folk Festival by making loud, electrified noise at a sanctuary that had never been thus sullied.
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The events we write about at Gaslight Records happened in some form or another 50 years ago to the day. Roll along with us and imagine you are back in July 25th marks 50 years since Bob Dylan took the stage with an electric band at the Newport Folk Festival in In that singular performance, he shook up not only the festival, but also the contemporary folk scene in America, in a way that neither would be the same again. Dylan Goes Electric is a brand new book by author and musician Elijah Wald, who has written extensively about American roots music.
W hat happened to the musical revolution? From the s to the 90s, popular music was prone to great watershed moments. The 21st century is very different. When anybody can log in to Spotify and put Quicksilver Messenger Service next to the Clash next to the Beastie Boys next to Pharrell Williams , how can one retain any feeling of forward motion? He played only three songs with the group, before returning solo on stage to play two more on a borrowed acoustic guitar. Whatever the reality, the accepted account of what had happened was soon established: Dylan and his band facing a wall of boos and catcalls, and carrying on regardless.
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