Almost 50 years to the day that folk icon Bob Dylan electrified the music world at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, music historian Elijah Wald came to the Strand Book Store to discuss his just-released book — “Dylan Goes Electric!: Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night That Split the Sixties” — about that controversial performance.
In the Strand’s Rare Book Room last night, Wald and music writer Amanda Petrusich talked about what happened on July 25, 1965, when Dylan eschewed his usual acoustic set for a plugged-in performance with an electric band. The book cuts through five decades of rumors and myths about one of the defining moments in music history, when the guitar legend hit the stage as a folk hero and left it as a rock star.
“One of the really fun things about this project was discovering how much I completely misunderstood and needed to completely revise my thinking.” Wald said. After talking with folk musician Peter Stampfel, who first heard Dylan in the months after Dylan’s arrival in New York, the author went back to his debut album and listened to it from a different perspective. “I’d never noticed that the guitar part [of ‘Highway 51’] is ‘Wake Up Little Susie.’ When I heard that, I thought I made a discovery.” Then he read the liner notes, which noted that “‘Highway 51’ guitar part reminiscent of the Everly Brothers,” and that Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley were among Dylan’s influences.
Wald notes that very few of the people at the Newport Folk Festival heard that first album. Instead, their impression of Dylan was as a folk singer and songwriter who’d written Peter, Paul and Mary’s hit song, “Blowin’ in the Wind.” At the first Newport Festival in 1963, Dylan closed the first night with that song backed by Peter, Paul and Mary, as well as Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and The Freedom Singers, before leading the crowd in a singalong of “We Shall Overcome.”
“To understand the story of Dylan at Newport, you have to start by understanding that to a lot of people at Newport, that’s who Dylan was. So two years later, he’s on stage and instead of doing that, he did this [going electric],” Wald noted.
Throughout the last half century, there has been much debate over how many people booed Dylan’s performance that night. Wald clears that up in his book, as well as in response to a question from the audience: “Yes, he was booed. But there were a lot more people cheering than booing. One of the reasons some people booing were so upset was all of the people cheering. Newport had been kind of overrun that year by pop fans there to hear Bob Dylan and didn’t care about the folk festival.”
He also pointed out a number of political and cultural upheavals of that era — such as the Freedom March and the escalation of the Vietnam War. “But there’s also the fact it was a hard year. The subtitle of this book is ‘The Night That Split the Sixties.’ And I’m not saying that Dylan himself split the sixties — 1965 was the year that what we call the sixties really begins.”