This year marked a special anniversary for Newport Folk Festival. It was 50 years ago on Sunday, July 25 that Dylan came up on stage at Newport and plugged in an electric guitar and played the music ‘he’ wanted to play. It was a controversial event and the reaction was loud.
Lots of stories have erupted since that day over the real events. Whether it’s true or not the one that most seem to believe is that the crowd were booing over Dylan playing electric. Since then others who were there at the event have said it was actually because of the poor sound quality and the audience couldn’t hear the lyrics…something which upset Pete Seeger who said words to the effect that: if he had an axe he’d cut the cable. This has since grown into the myth that he was backstage wielding an axe being restrained from cutting the lines! In the interview below (2013) he set the record straight:
As for the decision to plug in…one that seems widely referred to was the reason given by Jonathan Taplin, a then roadie at Newport. He said that Dylan overheard folk music collector Alan Lomax, also the organiser of Newport Festival then, making condescending remarks about the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. According to Taplin, Dylan’s decision was made on a whim and recalls him saying “Well, fuck them if they think they can keep electricity out of here, I’ll do it.” Thus, music history was made…this was the moment:
Of course Newport couldn’t let such an anniversary go unnoticed this year so along the way there have been a few videos made to commemorate the moment. First up was Jason Isbell who they managed to surprise by giving him the very Fender Stratocaster guitar Dylan played that night (to play…they weren’t that generous):
Then today they released this video featuring Jim James, Courtney Barnett, Colin Meloy which looks at the history of PLUGGING IN:
It’s a great story of our musical history but whilst I’m a Dylan fan, I’m not convinced of Isbell’s suggestion in the video above that acoustic and rock may have remained divided into two camps to this day. It makes that story sound better but really? As Seeger says, electrified instruments were regularly being played by Bluesmen (who regularly featured on the same stages as folk artists in the ’60s’ – blowing the ‘two camps’ argument out the window)…the blues used to be acoustic but was being amplified by the late 1930’s by the likes of T-Bone Walker and later by John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters, surely it was only a matter of time before folk was amplified? Sister Rosetta Tharpe had amplified her guitar whilst in the UK in 1957 and the following year Muddy Waters toured the UK. Strangely enough a myth about his music, not dis-similar to that Dylan event above, was created about his music being too loud resulting in shocked responses. This was later de-bunked (but not until much later) following the release of a live recording at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall on which Muddy can be heard, as can all the other instruments…as clear as day.
More History: Terry Riley’s In C (A 50th Anniversary Celebration)