“You know him, he’s yours: Bob Dylan.” It’s hard to imagine a more ironic introduction, but those were the words used by Ronnie Gilbert of The Weavers to introduce Dylan at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival. “What a crazy thing to say!” Dylan wrote in his memoir, Chronicles. “Screw that. As far as I knew, I didn’t belong to anybody then or now.” A year later at Newport he made his point loud and clear. They didn’t know him, and he wasn’t theirs.
On July 25, 1965 Dylan shocked the folk purists at Newport by plugging his Fender Stratocaster into an amplifier and joining guitarist Mike Bloomfield and others from the Butterfield Blues Band in a blistering rendition of “Maggie’s Farm,” a song often interpreted as Dylan’s protest song against the expectation of singing protest songs. (The farm in the title is viewed as a pun on Silas McGee’s farm in Mississippi, where Dylan made his famous appearance during a civil rights rally.) Many in the audience took it as a slap in the face. Boos rose up amid the cheering, and the booing continued into Dylan’s next song, the now-classic “Like a Rolling Stone.” Music writer Greil Marcus described the scene:
There was anger, there was fury, there was applause, there was stunned silence, but there was a great sense of betrayal. As if something precious and delicate was being dashed to the ground and stomped. As if the delicate flower of folk music, the priceless heritage of impoverished black farmers and destitute white miners, was being mocked by a dandy, with a garish noisy electric guitar, who was going to make huge amounts of money as a pop star by exploiting what he found from these poor people.
The controversial “electric” performance was the last of three Dylan appearances at the Newport festival. His first time there was in 1963, when he was an obscure young singer, little known outside of Greenwich Village. He appeared at the festival as a guest of Joan Baez, who was far better known and had recently appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Baez introduced Dylan to audiences around the country and encouraged him to write politically committed folk songs. But by the 1964 festival Dylan had already caught up to Baez, in terms of fame, and by 1965 he was breaking free of Baez and her expectations, and of folk music in general.
Murray Lerner’s The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan Live at the Newport Folk Festival 1963-1965 (above) captures Dylan’s evolution over those three years. The footage was originally shot for Lerner’s classic 1967 documentary, Festival!, and was eventually acquired by Dylan, whose manager agreed to let Lerner assemble it into a film–but only after the release of Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home, which uses some of the material. The Other Side of the Mirror was released in 2007. The documentary was shot on Kodak Plus-X and Tri-X film with a three-person crew. As Lerner later explained in an interview, his intention was to let Dylan’s evolving music speak for itself:
We decided on no narration, no pundit interviews, no interviews with Dylan. nothing except the experience of seeing him. That to me is exciting. Just the clear experience gives you everything you need. I felt that when screened the music of The Other Side of the Mirror, because he’s touted metaphorically as the mirror of his generation, and I thought no, he’s beyond that. He always takes the generation beyond that, and he’s like on the other side of the mirror. But I also felt the wondrous quality of his imagination took us like Alice to a new world on the other side of the mirror.