On July 25, 1965, Bob Dylan returned to the Newport Folk Festival, now the headline act. The purist audience expected to hear some Dylan classics played with an acoustic guitar — something like “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” They got anything but. Dylan traded in his Gibson acoustic guitar for a Fender Stratocaster, and began to bang out electrified versions of “Maggie’s Farm” and “Like a Rolling Stone” (see below). Pete Seeger, the folk icon, lost his cool and famously threatened, “If I had an axe, I’d chop the microphone cable right now.” The crowd booed (for reasons that some now interpret differently). Dylan abruptly left the stage, only to return with an acoustic guitar in hand. Later, during his 1965-66 world tour, embittered fans called him “Judas!”
Everything changed the moment Dylan went electric at Newport. Dylan’s own music, folk music, rock ‘n’ roll — they all moved in new directions. And the guitar at the center of the controversy, it went silent for almost five decades … until now. This week, the PBS program History Detectives aired an episode that tried to determine whether Dylan’s electric axe may have wound up in the hands of Dawn Peterson, the daughter of a pilot who flew planes boarded by Dylan and other folk musicians. The forensic evidence suggests that it’s the real deal. But Dylan, through his lawyers, insists that he’s still in possession of the history-making guitar. It’s another layer of controversy that began 47 years ago.