Today in History: The Day Dylan Went Electric

Today in History: The Day Dylan Went Electric

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On the final day of the fifth Newport Folk Festival in Newport, Rhode Island, American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan was able to divide an audience of thousands with a sound that would revolutionize the folk genre.

On this day in 1965, revered folk artist Bob Dylan took the main stage at the Newport Folk Festival in front of thousands of longtime fans and folk purists. To the confusion of his audience, as well as the stagehands and festival organizers, he had traded in his usual denim get-up for black leather and was backed by a five-piece band toting electric instruments and amps. A Fender Stratocaster (which later famously auctioned for close to a million dollars) rang out the first chords of an electrified rendition of “Maggie’s Farm” as backing instruments followed suit at maximum volume. Barely audible beneath overblown mixing and one of the earliest stage uses of distortion, Dylan sang the words, “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s Farm no more” – seemingly an assertion of this sonic rebellion. His audience’s response was also unrestrained, albeit split in what would be considered one of the most divisive performances in US history. A share of the crowd cheered in endorsement of this nuanced energy, while many others booed their disapproval. This disparity in reactions raged for the duration of two more electric songs including “Like A Rolling Stone”, which had been released a week prior and preluded this new diversion in sound. Backstage, festival founder and folk icon Pete Seeger supposedly attempted to cut the set short due to this affront to the sanctity of the genre. He later amended that his dismay was in response to the poor sound quality of the set. Taking the stage once more, Dylan concluded his performance with his characteristic acoustic guitar after just five songs. His departure left onlookers feeling bewildered, disappointed, and above all, betrayed.

Never mind from the purist consensus that electric guitars had no place in a folk act (this wasn’t even the first electric performance of the festival weekend); fans were primarily concerned that Dylan had sold out – a tale as old as time of unadulterated talent and individuality tarnished by the appeal of mainstream success. Ironically, what was then slated as conformity is now credited as the conception of a genre all its own – known today as folk rock. Folk rock is defined as a style of music derived from traditional folk and intersecting with rock music – utilizing instruments commonly found in rock bands as well as a stronger beat and tempo. Artists that drew some of their qualities from folk rock include Van Morrison, Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Leonard Cohen.

What the purist festival attendees failed to recognize at the time was just how unaffectedly “folk” this controversial act by Bob Dylan truly was. From the earliest pioneers of the genre, including Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Jimmie Rogers, folk was founded upon storytelling, reform, and progression. “We Shall Overcome”, perhaps the most well-known song connected to the civil rights movement, was published in 1947 by an organization directed by Pete Seeger. It called attention to topical displays of injustice, as was also the case with Neil Young’s response to the Kent State Shootings on “Ohio”. Most importantly, with its earliest roots in promoting labor movements, folk music was designed for the common people. Simple chord progressions, refrains, and call and response features made the genre highly accessible and unifying. By that standard, there’s arguably nothing more fundamentally “folk” than bringing those sounds and sentiments to the mainstream, which is exactly what Bob Dylan was credited for accomplishing through his radio success.

It’s been over fifty years since the day Bob Dylan went electric. Music continues to be an indispensable contributor to societal progress, even though artists’ experimentation and deviation from their conventional sound continues to be met with mixed discord. We have early innovators in the music realm to thank for the radical lengths we are able to go today as creatives, as well as spaces like the Newport Folk Festival which provide platforms for the convergence of differing ideas.

 

SOURCES

https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/dylan-goes-electric-at-the-newport-folk-festival

https://time.com/3968092/bob-dylan-electric-newport/

https://www.billboard.com/articles/news/6634639/newport-folk-festival-marks-50-years-since-bob-dylan-went-electric

https://consequenceofsound.net/2015/07/watch-bob-dylan-go-electric-at-the-newport-folk-festival-50-years-later/

https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/bob-dylans-electric-guitar-back-at-newport-fest-for-50th-anniversary-45690/

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