Electric Dylan controversy
I stopped buying his albums when Dylan went electric
By 1965, Bob Dylan had achieved the status of leading songwriter of the American folk music revival.
The response to his albums The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and The Times They Are a-Changin' led to him being labelled as the "spokesman of a generation" by the media.
In March 1965, Dylan released his fifth album, Bringing It All Back Home. Side One featured Dylan backed by an electric band. Side Two featured Dylan accompanying himself on acoustic guitar.
The date: July 25, 1965. The event: the Newport Folk Festival. Backed by guitarist Al Cooper and other members of the Paul Butterfield Blues band, along with pianist Berry Goldberg, an earnest 24-year-old Bob Dylan took the stage, an uncommon sight hanging from his shoulder: an electric guitar. The rising star had a major surprise planned for the audience, but he had no clue of the controversy he was about to stir.
Dylan's performance was innocent enough. Intent on showing off a pocketful of new electric songs, some from his just-released half-acoustic-half-electric album, Bringing it All Back Home, Dylan tore into his music with driven abandon, as he commonly did during acoustic performances.
A mix of both cheering and booing started when Dylan launched into “Maggie's Farm,” but the situation continued to melt down as he wound onward through the as-yet unreleased single, “Like a Rolling Stone.” Finally, the hostility climaxed with chants of “Sellout!” as Dylan ran through “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, it Takes a Train to Cry.”
Things got so sensational and warped that a purple-faced Pete Seeger was allegedly running around backstage with an axe, threatening to chop the wires to the soundboard. Enough was enough; after ending the song, the musicians walked off, somewhat stunned.
After all, hadn't Muddy Waters played electric at the festival? Why was the audience open-minded and accepting about some musicians, but not about Bob Dylan?
Consider for a second all the facial expressions casting about. All that seriousness. Rage, fury, angst, confusion. Intensity. By all accounts, the vibe was best described as surreal after the musicians left the stage. When lured back out by former stage mate Joan Baez, a shaken Bob Dylan grabbed an acoustic guitar and gave the crowd what it ultimately came for. His return to the stage was pure class. The atmosphere was still tense, but to some modest applause, he assuaged the fold with “Mr. Tambourine Man,” salvaging the day, and soon ending his set with an apropos of everything, “It's All Over Now, Baby Blue.”
It has been argued by Murray Lerner, and others present at Newport, that the boos were from outraged folk fans, who disliked Dylan playing an electric guitar. Al Kooper, and others present at Newport, have disagreed with this interpretation, and argued that the audience were upset by poor sound quality, and the short duration of the set.
Nowadays critics speculate that, had Dylan continued on as an acoustic folk singer and never gone electric, he'd probably never have reached the pinnacle of success that he still enjoys today. But regardless, suffering critical assaults became a mainstay for Dylan after the '65 Newport controversy, and soon afterward the troubadour-turned-folk-rocker would quit performing live altogether for a period of eight years. While Dylan had played Newport—acoustically—in 1963 and again in '64 to much enthusiasm, his conversion to electric was the hardest sell of his career.
This festival—once well-known for its hardcore audience of staunch folk purists—would be the showcase for the biggest artistic statement of Dylan's career, an unorthodox and unforgivable blasphemy that will always rank as one of the seminal moments of American rock 'n' roll history.