Bob Dylan’s Historic Newport Folk Festival Performances, 1963–1965

“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.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Bob Dylan’s (In)Famous Elec­tric Gui­tar From the New­port Folk Fes­ti­val Dis­cov­ered?

The Times They Are a‑Changin’: 1964 Broad­cast Gives a Rare Glimpse of the Ear­ly Bob Dylan


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  • PSB says:

    What is the source of this “guest of Joan Baez” for New­port ’63? Dylan was­n’t a guest of Joan Baez at New­port. Dylan’s man­ag­er Albert Gross­man was on the Board of Direc­tors at New­port and was one of the founders of the fes­ti­val to begin with. He was a reg­u­lar booked per­former.

  • alex says:

    Well.…he is not annoucend on the fly­ers also, only Joan Baez..

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