Let us cut to the chase my friends, July 25, 1965 was the day
that Minnesota native and New York coffeehouse transplant Robert
Zimmerman took the stage at the Newport Folk Festival, plugged in
his sunburst Fender Stratocaster into a 100 watt Twin Reverb and
changed the landscape of music forever.
Oh and by the way, he had already changed his name to Bob Dylan
by this point.
Folk music had taken over the counter-culture since the
mid-fifties with acts such as the Weavers (featuring Pete Seeger),
Peter, Paul and Mary, Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Dave Van Ronk, Joan
Baez, and Odetta. This acoustic-driven music was inspired by
colossal talent Woody Guthrie, and to a lesser degree black
Their music was also known as "protest music" way before Dylan's
"hard rain had come" and the subculture that had developed around
it was intensely loyal to their heroes. In the summer of 1965 there
was no bigger hero that Bob Dylan.
The Newport Folk Festival was started by promotor George Wein in
1959 as a sister festival to the already immensely popular Newport
Jazz Festival. The mostly white "folk musicians" were joined
onstage at the NFF by many great black blues musicians. Most of
these legendary bluesman were "rediscovered" by the promotors, and
were given a heroes welcome by the mostly young white crowd, as
they had grown up on the records these great men and women had made
in the late '20s and throughout the '30s.
One of the other darlings of the Newport Folk scene was Joan
Baez, and it was Baez herself that dragged the young Dylan onstage
in 1963 to introduce him to the crowd. Dylan returned in 1964,
armed only with his Martin guitar (the same model played by Woody
Guthrie), but this time he was on the brink of superstardom. So you
can imagine the anticipation when their hero returned on that balmy
day in July of 1965. Dylan knew that he would be breaking a
tradition that no electric guitars had been cranked up on the that
stage since the festivals inception in 1959. Bob Dylan also knew
that he had to placate the crowd by playing the first part of his
set acoustically, which he did.
Film footage of this show documents Dylan's nervous and
inconsistent acoustic set. I'm sure the fact that there were drums
and a few guitar amps set up on the stage, added to the intensity
of the vibe of the crowd.
But it was when Dylan retook the stage accompanied by guitar
legend Mike Bloomfield and members of the Paul Butterfield Blues
Band that the crowd turned against him. Boo's and jeers rang out,
and almost stopped the show, but Dylan forged on after a few choice
words for the less then curteous crowd.
It wasn't so much that Dylan had brought the dreaded electric
guitar onstage, the same stage that Mahalia Jackson had sung on, it
was the fact that the crowd, and folk fans all over the world
finally had one of their own becoming a superstar. This was the
knife in the back, that in one fell swoop brought folk music from
the brink of crossover success back to the coffeehouses for good.
And in a final ironic turn the only folk music you could find on tv
by the 60s was on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.
As we all know Bob Dylan went on to become the most influential
and controversial American songwriter in the rock era, which means
his risk at the Newport was really no risk at all. It can also be
argued tha his set at Newport in 1965 blazed a trail for the
Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, and of course the Woodstock Festival
in 1969, but it also was the "Day Folk Music Died."