Bob Dylan, An appreciation
The Nobel Prize for literature was awarded to Bob Dylan in October 2016 for his entire body of work. His music and career having meant so much to a lot of us, a bit of review seems appropriate at this time.
Bob Dylan came to New York in the winter of 1961. To appreciate what he has accomplished to be worthy of the Nobel prize for literature this Fall it’s helpful to know how fast he moved and how much he evolved. I was first aware of Bob through the small publications emanating from New York covering the folk music scene. ” Broadside” and “Singout”began to write about Bob before he recorded his first album which was released in March of ’62.
Broadside #27 June ’63
N Y Times 4/13/’63
It is interesting to note that Israel Young owner of Mcdougal Street’s Folklore Center and promoter of one of Dylan’s first concerts commented in his “Frets and Frails ” column in the Dec-Jan. ’62 “Sing Out”: “Bruce Langhorne will accompany Bob Dylan on his new album. Other surprises will be a bass and a set of drums”
By August of ’63, Bob had become such a fixture on the topical /folk song scene that he performed at the March on Washington along with Joan Baez and Peter Paul and Mary.
Bob Dylan Spring 1965 Raleigh, N.C.
Joan Baez together with Bob Dylan ’65
William Neal Reynolds Coliseum
However he soon chaffed at the confines of topical/political songwriter and embraced more personal songwriting and a wider musical pallet only possible performing with a band.
Newport Folk Festival July 25, 1965. Bob goes Electric.
The ’65 Stratocaster the Bob played at the Newport Folkfsetival July of 65.
The other Fender at Newport that year.. Mike Bloomfield’s ’63 Telecaster.
While working on Photos of this Telecaster I was asked by the editor of Vintage Guitar Magazine, Ward Meeker To write an account of my recollections of Dylan’s appearance there.
Bob goes electric. What happened at Newport ’65
So you want to know what happened at The Newport Folk Festival July 25th 1965. Well I was there and I’ll tell you what I know but I’m not sure it will answer your question.
First a bit of background. For a generation of music lovers raised on the first blush of Rock and Roll (Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Elvis, Ray Charles etc.) the late 50s were a let down filled with manufactured sounds that engaged neither your body or mind. Folk music arose as the intelligent and engaging listening choice. It was enormously popular in the late 50s early 60s, guitar centric in the extreme.
Social activism was woven into the music and the audience providing a strong sense of community.
The Folk music boom (or Folk scare as Matt Umanov refers to it) was really a marketing conciet. Teenagers were not experiencing folk music first hand from their grandmothers or local communities but from their new stereos courtesy of 33 1/3 LPs.
Newport R.I. had had success with it’s annual summer Jazz festival and decided to add a Folk Music Festival starting in 1959. This became the annual gathering of the fans, performers, managers, scenesters and some actual FOLK. By 1965 it had become a 4 day event of multiple small daytime workshops and evening concerts on a big stage like todays outdoor festivals.
Bob Dylan was without question the crown prince of the folkies. In his short career since arriving in Greenwich Village in January of ’61 he had mastered the traditional repertoire to be a throughly convincing and engaging solo performer. Not satisfied he added his own lyrics to traditional folk melodies to create timeless anthems but he wasn’t about to stop there. At an afternoon workshop at Newport ’64 he performed “Mr Tamborine Man” which indicated a deepening and more personal type of song from him. In march of ’65 Dylan released “Bringing it all Back Home” his groundbreaking LP which featured electric instrument on half of the songs.
By July of ’65 the stage was set for a quantum leap. The Beatles had reinvigorated popular music co-oping classic rock and roll and infusing it with a wit and intelligence that had been missing. Folkies were starting to look seriously at the electric guitars and amps when they went to get strings for their D-28s, J-45s and long neck Vegas. Greenwich Village ex folkies, The Loving Spoonful released “Do you believe in Magic”. Blues master John Hammond’s coffee house set featured covers of Chuck Berry and Bo Didley along with his Robert Johnson covers and Dylan’s own “Like a Rolling Stone” was on AM radio and already in the charts. Couldn’t they see it coming ?
The Chambers Brothers and the Butterfield Blues band both performed at The Folk Festival in ’65 as full electric bands but were unknown to the majority of attendees who had come to see Peter Paul and Mary, Joan Baez and of course Dylan. At the Sunday afternoon Blues Workshop, Alan Lomax disrespectfully introduced the Butterfield Blues Band. Albert Grossman, the Blues Band’s manager (and Dylan’s) objected and the two festival executives got into a scuffle rolling in the dirt in front of the small stage as Butterfield Band including Mike Bloomfield played like they owned every club on Chicago’s south side. Dylan waited behind Butterfield draped over the fence in full Carnaby Street drag, Wayfarers and polka dot shirt. Members of the Butterfield Band were in the pick up band for Dylan’s sound check and that evening’s concert. Yes things were starting to get interesting at Newport.
The crowd filling into the Sunday night concert was enormous impatient to get to their seats anxious the see their favorites with little interest or curiosity in acts like The Moving Star Hall Singers who’s images and music were unknown to them. Suddenly midway through the concert Bob Dylan was on stage black leather jacket, orange shirt, Beatle boots with a Stratocaster so new it was painful to look at except that it was SOOOOO COOL and Mike Bloomfield with that Tele, to put it simply WAS LOUD. Not just “no one at this point knew how to mix sound for a rock band” loud, Bloomfield was Blowing Down the Gates of Heaven LOUD. Dylan lead his band sharply through 3 song’s with imperious attitude, snarling and spiting his vocals inviting scorn. “Maggie’s Farm”, “Like a Rolling Stone” and “It Takes a Lot to Laugh. It Takes a Train to Cry” were the only tunes they had hastily rehearsed the night before in one of Newport’s “cottages” No soothing “Blowing in The Wind” or “Don’t Think Twice” The tunes went by in a mad crush of volume and scrambled lyrics. People went nuts. Then suddenly the band left the stage with the audience “all shook up”. Peter Yarrow of PPM the Concert’s MC implored Dylan to return solo with an acoustic guitar borrowed backstage which he did. The first song was “Mr Tamborine Man” and finally,“It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” which might as well be the instruction manual for the cultural revolution about to break over the confused audience. He was in their faces for the entire performance challenging them to dig deeper, to not take the easy path. Personally I thought it was great.
Were they booing? I’d say baying was more like it. They wanted more or they wanted something else or they didn’t want to be dragged kicking and screaming into a more authentic and complicated future. The oil on troubled waters was Mel Lyman playing “Rock of Ages” or was it “Amazing Grace” repeatedly as everyone filled out from the Festival to face a new future full of unknowns but possibilities.
I was there and that’s what I saw and heard. You tell me if they booed?
Bloomfield and Dylan Newport ’65 unknown photographer
I think I’ll have to end the narrative here. You could fill a very interesting bookshop with books about Dylan so there’s much more to this story as you probably know. In summation, I’ll quote singer songwriter Steve Earle who said to me last week when I asked him about the awarding of the Nobel prize to his friend. “Bob is responsible for raising the craft of songwriting to that of literature.”