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Revisit Bob Dylan’s electric performance at Newport Folk Festival 50 years later

on July 26, 2015, 7:15pm

Entering 1965, Bob Dylan was in the midst of making musical changes, as his last album, the prior June’s Another Side of Bob Dylan, first announced with its title and confirmed with its surreal lyrics and instrumentation. No one, however, was prepared for the waves Dylan was about to make. The sanctity of folk music, the movement for which Dylan was the poster boy, was seen as something to be preserved, but Dylan was no longer interested in using his voice/acoustic guitar/harmonica configuration to be “the new Woody Guthrie.”

He was going electric.

One particular event showed the controversial nature of this new direction. On July 25th, 1965, Dylan played the Newport Folk Festival, an event he’d performed at twice before — just not to this much consternation from audience members. Taking the stage with Mike Bloomfield (guitar), Jerome Arnold (bass), Sam Lay (drums), Barry Goldberg (piano), and Al Kooper (organ), Dylan led a full-band set that would go down as one of the most divisive concerts ever, putting the worlds of both folk and rock in temporary identity crises. The set spanned five songs: three with the band, plus two solo acoustic numbers from Dylan.

Reaction to that Sunday’s performance was nothing if not mixed. This wasn’t the first time a performer went electric at Newport, but it was an unexpected move from Dylan, who was mere months removed from his first album with electric guitar, Bringing It All Back Home. Among those caught off guard at Newport was the revered folksinger Pete Seeger, who threw a furious tantrum upon hearing the band play the Bringing It All Back Home cut “Maggie’s Farm”. Accounts of Seeger’s reaction and reasoning vary, but the man himself would say he was upset not because of the electric band’s appearance at the fest, but because of the overwhelming distortion of the sound setup itself. He couldn’t hear the words Dylan was singing.

Still, the disapproval of a man seen to be one of Dylan’s spiritual ancestors came to embody the 1960s’ prevalence of generational tension. It would be a while before Dylan would return to his folk roots. A month after Newport, he’d release Highway 61 Revisited (featuring “Like a Rolling Stone”), and he’d follow it up with the even more ambitious Blonde on Blonde the next year. The booing and catcalls at Newport would eventually be rendered irrelevant by the masses’ response to the now legendary Highway 61 and Blonde on Blonde.

Revisit clips of Dylan’s Newport performance below.

Video Setlist:
01. “Maggie’s Farm”
02. “Like a Rolling Stone”
03. “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”
04. “Mr. Tambourine Man”

Full Setlist:
01. “Maggie’s Farm”
02. “Like a Rolling Stone”
03. “Phantom Engineer” (later “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”)
04. “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”
05. “Mr. Tambourine Man”