50 years since Bob Dylan went electric at Newport: Why it mattered, and still does


Bob Dylan
Saturday, July 25 marks the 50th anniversary of Bob Dylan going electric at the Newport Folk Festival (Elliott Landy)

On July 25, 1965, Bob Dylan took the stage at the Newport Folk Festival carrying an electric guitar. As Dylan and his band lit into "Maggie's Farm," he probably guessed he was about to create a minor ruckus—but he couldn't have known that he was actually creating one of the most iconic moments in rock history, an incident that would come to be regarded as a crucial turning point of the art form. The performance was controversial—to say the least.

To understand why, it's important to understand that Dylan had become the brightest light of the folk revival: a musical movement in the 1950s and 1960s that sought to strip away the studio sheen and manufactured melodies of conventional pop music. Folk revivalists prized authenticity (or at least the appearance of it) and relatively spare, acoustic instrumentation. They revered the aging masters of folk and blues, and advocated for social justice.

Before Dylan, the movement's biggest star was Joan Baez. Pure of voice with a strong spirit and a statuesque image, Baez had broken into mainstream success with her self-titled debut album. Baez leaned on traditional numbers, but when she met Bob Dylan, she immediately appreciated his gift for original songwriting in the folk tradition. Thanks in large part to Baez's advocacy—including bringing him on tour—Dylan rapidly became a cult star of the folk revival, with a growing mainstream profile due to covers of his songs by artists like Peter, Paul & Mary.

For folk revivalists, Dylan was the artist who could complete the circle: he wrote new songs ("The Times They Are A-Changin'," "Blowin' in the Wind") that could stand alongside any classics, yet spoke to contemporary concerns. Dylan was proof that the folk tradition was truly a living one, and that the folk revivalists' values didn't consign them to forever living in the past.

Founded in 1959, the Newport Folk Festival had become the folkies' premier annual convocation; in 1963 and 1964, Dylan and Baez had virtually reigned as the festival's king and queen. As the 1965 festival began, images of Dylan and Baez singing "We Shall Overcome" with Peter, Paul & Mary and the Freedom singers—just a month before the March on Washington—were still dear to many festivalgoers' hearts. Though the crowd didn't expect that kind of performance again, they likely expected that Dylan would come to the folk festival and play...well, folk.

When Dylan's brief set began, there was chaos. Everyone who was there has a different story about exactly what happened, but suffice it to say no one was holding hands and chanting "Kumbaya." Members of the crowd shouted angrily, and many of them were certainly upset about the whole idea of Dylan playing his newly scabrous brand of electric rock—though numerous attendees have claimed that the sound mix was horrible, and that much of the shouting was simply because people couldn't even make out the lyrics. Dylan was relatively new to the electric guitar, and his playing wasn't that great, either.

Meanwhile, backstage, archivist Alan Lomax was getting into a physical altercation with Dylan's manager Albert Grossman because Lomax believed Grossman had been rude in his introduction of Dylan's backing group, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Pete Seeger—already a storied eminence at age 46—was also backstage, and wasn't thrilled. Legends sprang up that Seeger was trying to cut the sound cables with an ax, but though that wasn't true, the germ of truth in the story is that Seeger was deeply disappointed.

After a few electric songs, Dylan went back out to play a couple of acoustic numbers, but it was already clear that the night was going to be infamous. Dylan left Newport disgusted with the folk music establishment, and the controversy made headlines around the world, helping Dylan's new music, including the epochal "Like a Rolling Stone," climb the charts. The public understood that the night had marked a turning point—not just for Dylan, but for rock music as a whole.

When folk fans saw Bob Dylan with an electric guitar, many thought he was betraying everything that they stood for—and that, they thought, their hero did too. To them, electric rock and roll was commercial and vulgar, with no room whatsoever for the sort of noble sentiments that they cherished. Rocking out like Dylan did seemed gauche and disrespectful, an apostasy without artistic merit. The neck of that Fender Stratocaster looked to them like a giant middle finger, a hostile and insulting intrusion on their sacred land.

How did posterity come to decide they were so wrong—and that Dylan was right?

By going electric, Dylan forcefully asserted that loud, explosive rock and roll wasn't inconsistent with penetrating lyrics and interesting ideas—musical and otherwise. That was decidedly contrary to the prevailing wisdom at the time; after all, it had only been ten years since the beginning of the rock and roll era, and rock was still widely seen as a callow vessel of youthful rebellion. Dylan's performance at Newport, along with his remarkable new albums, marked a watershed; in just the next few years, it opened the door to seminal work by the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, the Byrds, and many others. By the end of the '60s, rock music had rapidly matured into one of the century's most dynamic art forms.

When President Obama said recently that "there's not a bigger giant in the history of American music" than Bob Dylan, he could only have been referring to precisely that pivotal role Dylan played in the maturation of rock and pop music. Newport in 1965 was the crucial moment of that transformation; 50 years later, musicians around the world are still exploring the territory Dylan opened with those three sloppy, daring, brilliant, extremely loud songs.

In honor of the 50th anniversary of Bob Dylan going electric, The Current is giving away copies of Bob Dylan's take on the jazz standard "The Night We Called It a Day" pressed on limited edition blue vinyl, special to Record Store Day. Enter for your chance to win using the form below.

Bob Dylan "The Night We Called It a Day" Giveaway

Use this form to enter the Bob Dylan "The Night We Called It a Day" giveaway between 12:30 p.m. CDT on Wednesday, July 22 and 11:59 p.m. CDT on Tuesday, July 28, 2015.

Two (2) grand prize winners will receive one (1) CD copy of The New Basement Tapes' album Lost on the River, one (1) DVD copy of Lost Songs: The Basement Tapes Continued and one (1) 7" copy of Bob Dylan's "The Night We Called It a Day." Two (2) runner-ups will receive one (1) CD copy of The New Basement Tapes' album Lost on the River, one (1) DVD copy of Lost Songs: The Basement Tapes Continued. (Three (3) back up names will be drawn.)

Prize retail value: $52 (grand prize), $27 (runner-up)

We will contact the winner on Wednesday, July 29, 2015. Winner must accept by 10 a.m. CDT Thursday, July 30, 2015.

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