‘A leather jacket, shiny in the lights . . . a salmon-colored shirt buttoned tight at the neck . . . His jeans were tight and black above his black cowboy boots, and his guitar was a solid-body Stratocaster with a two-tone sunburst finish. The lights picked him out, alone, front and centre, the other players shadows in the darkness behind him. He listened a moment more, feeling the power of the band, then stepped to the microphone and sang a single line: ‘I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more . . . ’”
The year is 1965, the day is July 25th, the event is Rhode Island’s Newport Folk Festival, and the result of Bob Dylan’s electrified few songs here is, no more and no less, the changing of the cultural guard.
Up to this point, Dylan had been perceived as the natural (if not anointed) heir to Woody Guthrie, the iconic figurehead of the American folk movement. But America hadn’t reckoned on anyone biting the hand that had inspired and influenced him. In one night, across a few noisy, amplified songs, Dylan dragged folk music kicking and screaming into the realms of rock and pop.
It was, writes American author Elijah Wald in his superb book, Dylan Goes Electric! – Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night That Split the Sixties, "the iconic moment of intersection, when rock emerged – separate from rock'n'roll – and replaced folk as the serious, intelligent voice of a generation".
Meanwhile, behind the festival stage, sitting in a parked car in a field, Pete Seeger, Newport organiser and the primary pioneer of American folk, could be seen with his head in his hands. “That noise is terrible! Make it stop!”
The book’s subtitle is crucial, as Seeger plays a part in not only the truth of the matter but also the perception. As the artist who, along with Woody Guthrie, shepherded the American folk movement and its revival in the 1940s and ’50s from local communities to national gatherings, Seeger was instrumental in making sure that anything he was involved in, or spearheaded, was inclusive for both musician and participant.
Seeger was viewed by many (if not all) as the staid gatekeeper of folk – a man adhering firmly to rules and ideals that were honourable but anachronistic. His early mentoring of Dylan was fraught with the notion that perhaps the young man from Duluth, Minnesota, wasn’t all he made himself out to be.
Seeger was, however, aware that perception and truth were two completely different matters, but they often intersected, and just as often the result was clarity.
What was truth, anyway? According to Seeger’s father, Charles, truth was like a rabbit in a bramble patch – you could circle around it, point and see the rabbit, but you could never put your hand on it. And so, for a while in the early 1960s, that’s what Bob Dylan was to the folk revival movement: the sleek and mischievous rabbit that people could see, hear and admire, but not grasp.
Wald’s book deftly weaves various strands together. He begins, commendably, with a lengthy overview of Pete Seeger’s emergence as a major cultural activist, a non-mainstream artist who believed that he was working for the good of humanity, and who invested in his music the shared values and traditions of humanity. He preferred, writes Wald, “to think of himself as a conduit, proselytizer and catalyst rather than as a star”. To Seeger, to be political was everything; his belief in folk music as a channel for political thought was interconnected with his beliefs in democracy and communism, and while his prolificacy may have been misinterpreted as an obsessive need to be heard (between 1954 to 1958 alone, Seeger released six albums per year), there was no denying his artistic and political integrity.
Come the early '60s, Seeger's influence over what became known as collegiate folk groups was apparent in the huge commercial success of acts such as the Kingston Trio, and the growing success of collegiate folk exemplars, Peter, Paul & Mary. Such triumphs by a succession of neatly coiffed groups (including the New Christy Minstrels, and the Smothers Brothers), however, were soon impeded. According to Dave Van Ronk (the New York City-based singer who was the inspiration for the Coen brothers' 2013 movie, Inside Llewyn Davis), the interruption couldn't have come sooner. The Kingston Trio and their ilk, he recalls, "were no true disciples, or even honest money-changers – they were a bunch of slick hustlers selling Mickey Mouse dolls in the Temple. Join their ranks? I would sooner have been boiled in skunk piss." Into Greenwich Village, then, came Bob Dylan.
Dylan’s spindly presence in New York divided the critics. Some accused him of being little more than a Guthrie imitator; others were less cynical. Tom Paxton recollects that Bob “sang like Bob right from the beginning”, while Seeger immediately sprang to his defence: “He was influenced [by Guthrie]\, but he was influenced by a lot of people. He was his own man, always.”
So it proved. Within a few years, Dylan had evolved so fast, and turned things around so swiftly, that some people didn’t know which way to look. While early signs of his talents weren’t healthy in a commercial context (traditionalists viewed him as “forced, pretentious, inept”), there was little doubt that they were, to paraphrase a later Dylan song, criticising something they didn’t, or couldn’t understand. Which brings us to July 25th, 1965, the Newport Folk Festival.
There had been electrified sets before at Newport (John Lee Hooker, ’63; Johnny Cash, ’64), but little sense that a performer who had been adopted/lionised as the folk movement’s new standard bearer would have the audacity to abandon the club with such force and vehemence (on, as it transpires, an unplanned train of thought). Dylan was caught betwixt and between a festival that was, writes Wald, “supposed to be a sanctuary for homegrown traditions and humanist values”, but which organisers wanted to be not only a museum but also a creative hub for socio-cultural change.
What transpired was, for some, the day the music died; for others it was the night the music changed forever. Recollections, Wald duly advises, vary: of the 17,000 people present, some spectators remember sections of the crowd booing, some cheering, some in shocked silence. At the gig afterparty, Pete Seeger was nowhere to be seen, but the following morning at Newport’s Viking Hotel, eating breakfast with his father, he was overheard talking about the previous night’s climactic, catalytic events and the man who engineered them.
“I thought,” Seeger said, “he had so much promise.”
Tony Clayton-Lea writes on pop culture/arts topics for The Irish Times