Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Bob Dylan at Newport, 1965

I've just finished reading White Bicycles, Joe Boyd's excellent memoir of the 60s ("I was there, I do remember"). The record producer and self-proclaimed éminence grise was one of the organisers of the infamous 1965 Newport Fok Festival when Bob Dylan plugged in and blew dust from the ears of thousands of folkies (scroll down for the tracks).

My favourite anecdote is when Dylan returned to play two acoustic songs after pissing off the folk faithful with the Butterfield Blues Band. He asked the audience, "Has anyone have an E harmonica? Anyone? An E harmonica?" As Boyd writes, "Only at Newport would this request be followed by a shower of half a dozen harmonicas on to the stage". You can hear them all thud in this clip:

Boyd also explains his theory behind the rumour that Pete Seeger was so incensed by Dylan's electric performance that he threatened to cut the speaker cables with an axe. It turns out that on the bill the day before Dylan's gig were the Texas Worksong Prison Group, a bunch of lifers on day release who performed one song chopping down a huge tree stump. As they rhythmically attacked the felled tree a mic cable came loose. A worried Seeger signalled to Boyd to secure the wire. "Seeger, axes, cables..." he writes, "somehow, in the way of legends, things got muddled up."

These then are the songs that caused all the fuss...

MP3: Bob Dylan - Maggie's Farm

MP3: Bob Dylan - Like a Rolling Stone

MP3: Bob Dylan - Phantom Engineer

MP3: Bob Dylan - It's All Over Now, Baby Blue

MP3: Bob Dylan - Mr Tambourine Man

Listening to these tracks more than 40 years after the event it's hard to comprehend why they had such an impact. The version of Like a Rolling Stone that Dylan and The Band unleashed in the UK the following year has much more power. Yet Boyd puts forward a good argument that this was rock's Year Zero.
Some loved it, some hated it, most were amazed, astonished and energized by it. It was something we take for granted now, but utterly novel then: non-linear lyrics, an attitude of total contempt fot expectation and established values, accompanied by screaming blues guitar and a powerful rhythm section, played at ear-splitting volume by young kids. The Beatles were still singing love songs in 1965 while the Stones played a brand of blues-rooted pop. This was different. This was the Birth of Rock.

If Joe Boyd is correct then this was arguably the most important gig in music history. What do you reckon?

To those wanting to witness Dylan at Newport I'd highly recommomend the DVD The Other Side Of The Mirror, which I wrote about some time ago. There's also much more about it in White Bicycles.

Related Posts
Bob Dylan: The Other Side of the Mirror


Curt Shannon said...

Hey, love the post. Btw, there's a problem with the Mr. Tambourine link.

Laurence J. said...

I was there...rode up on a '64 BSA 650 Lightning...other electric acts performed without problem - Howlin' Wolf, for example - and really, the crowd reaction wasn't negative: just as many cheers as boos. The Forest Hills concert about a month later was a real riot; fans rushing the stage, fights breaking out in the audience.
At Newport the sound was the real problem (and Jerome Arnold missing a change in "Maggie's Farm").

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. Love the blog. Well done, mate.

Doctor Noe said...

I was there too. My buddy Jerry Seinfeld is sleeping it off on a cot on page 20 of Dave Gahr's "Festival Songbook" (a whole drawerful of Dylan prints Dave gave me were stolen from my garage in Santa Monica years later.) True dat about the crowd reaction. From where I was standing (in the rear) I thought they were all yelling, "Down in front!"

To quote Dylan, "There was magic in the air."

Nigel Smith said...

Many thanks for your comments. Apologies about the broken links. They are now fixed.

Doctor Noe said...

I was wondering about the photo credit. Is this Dave Gahr? If yes, why not credit him (R.I.P.)?

Nigel Smith said...

@ Doctor Noe - the image I think is a screen grab from Murray Lerner's film The Other Side of the Mirror, which I pinched from here - Film Forno.

Here's a great David Gahr photo of Dylan diving into a pool.

Doctor Noe said...


This is one of the images that Dave Gaahr gave me that was stolen from my basement 20 years ago.

And, the guy who posted it on Flickr is a friend of mine, Fred Seibert, who I first met when I was working with the Crawdaddy Magazine radio show taped at WKCR (King's Crown Radio) aat Colum bia U., where Fred was program director. What a small friggin' world, eh?

Neil said...

It's a terrific performance.

I don't know about that Pete Seeger axe thing. I'm fairly sure I saw a documentary in the last year where Seeger himself said he didn't have a problem with the type of music that Dylan and his band were playing, but rather that he couldn't hear the vocals because the band was so loud, so he (not entirely seriously) said he'd cut the cable so that he could hear the vocals.

Ah, whatever..

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