The Moment When Bob Dylan Went Electric: Watch Him Play “Maggie’s Farm” at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965

The phrase “when Dylan went elec­tric” once car­ried as much weight in pop cul­ture his­to­ry as “the fall of the Berlin Wall” car­ries in, well, his­to­ry. Both events have reced­ed into what feels like the dis­tant past, but in the ear­ly 1960s, they like­ly seemed equal­ly unlike­ly to many a seri­ous Bob Dylan fan in the folk scene. They also seemed equal­ly con­se­quen­tial. To under­stand the cul­ture of the decade, we must under­stand the import of Dylan’s appear­ance at the New­port Folk Fes­ti­val in 1965, backed by Mike Bloom­field and oth­er mem­bers of the Paul But­ter­field Blues Band.

The death of rock and roll in the 50s is often told through the lens of tragedy, but there was also anger, dis­gust, and mass dis­af­fec­tion. The Pay­ola scan­dal had an impact, as did Elvis join­ing the army and Lit­tle Richard’s return to reli­gion. Rock and roll was bro­ken, tamed, and turned into com­mer­cial fod­der. Sim­ply put, it wasn’t cool at all, man, and even the Bea­t­les couldn’t save it sin­gle­hand­ed­ly. Their arrival on U.S. shores is mythol­o­gized as music his­to­ry Normandy—and has been cred­it­ed with inspir­ing count­less num­bers of musicians—but with­out Dylan and the blues artists he imi­tat­ed, things would very much have gone oth­er­wise.

In the ear­ly 60s, Dylan and the Bea­t­les’ “respec­tive musi­cal con­stituen­cies were indeed per­ceived as inhab­it­ing two sep­a­rate sub­cul­tur­al worlds,” writes Jonathan Gould in Can’t Buy Me Love: The Bea­t­les, Britain, and Amer­i­ca. “Dylan’s core audi­ence was com­prised of young peo­ple emerg­ing from adolescence—college kids with artis­tic or intel­lec­tu­al lean­ings, a dawn­ing polit­i­cal and social ide­al­ism, and a mild­ly bohemi­an style…. The Bea­t­les’ core audi­ence, by con­trast, was com­prised of ver­i­ta­ble ‘teenyboppers’—kids in high school or grade school whose lives were total­ly wrapped up in the com­mer­cial­ized pop­u­lar cul­ture of tele­vi­sion, radio, pop records, fan mag­a­zines, and teen fash­ion. They were seen as idol­aters, not ide­al­ists.”

To evoke any­thing resem­bling the com­mer­cial pablum of Beat­le­ma­nia, and at New­port, no less, spoke of trea­son to folk authen­tic­i­ty. Some called out “Where’s Ringo?” Oth­ers called him “Judas.” Dylan’s set “would go down as one of the most divi­sive con­certs ever”—(and that’s say­ing a lot)—“putting the worlds of both folk and rock in tem­po­rary iden­ti­ty cri­sis,” Michael Mad­den writes at Con­se­quence of Sound. The for­mer folk hero accom­plished this in all of three songs, “Maggie’s Farm,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” and “Phan­tom Engi­neer,” an ear­ly take on “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.” Pete Seeger famous­ly “threw a furi­ous tantrum” upon hear­ing the first few bars of “Maggie’s Farm,” above, though he’s since said he was upset at the sound qual­i­ty.

The moment was defining—and Dylan appar­ent­ly decid­ed to do it on a whim after hear­ing Alan Lomax insult the Paul But­ter­field Band, who were giv­ing a work­shop at the fes­ti­val. He came back onstage after­ward to play two acoustic songs for the appre­cia­tive audi­ence who remained, unfazed by the vehe­mence of half the crowd’s reac­tion to his ear­li­er set. Yet the rev­o­lu­tion to return rock to its folk and blues roots was already under­way. With­in six months of meet­ing Dylan in 1964, Gould writes, “John Lennon would be mak­ing records on which he open­ly imi­tat­ed Dylan’s nasal drone, brit­tle strum, and intro­spec­tive vocal per­sona.” (Dylan also intro­duced him to cannabis.)

In 1965, “the dis­tinc­tions between the folk and rock audi­ences would have near­ly evap­o­rat­ed.” The two met in the mid­dle. “The Bea­t­les’ audi­ence, in keep­ing with the way of the world, would be show­ing signs of grow­ing up,” while Dylan’s fans showed signs of “grow­ing down, as hun­dreds of thou­sands of folkies in their late teens and ear­ly twen­ties” redis­cov­ered “the ethos of their ado­les­cent years.” They also dis­cov­ered elec­tric blues. New­port shows Dylan accel­er­at­ing the tran­si­tion, and also sig­ni­fied the arrival of the great elec­tric blues-rock gui­tarists, in the form of the inim­itable Mike Bloom­field, an invad­ing force all his own, who inspired a gen­er­a­tion with his licks on “Like a Rolling Stone” and on the absolute clas­sic Paul But­ter­field Blues Band debut album, released in The Year Dylan Went Elec­tric.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Tan­gled Up in Blue: Deci­pher­ing a Bob Dylan Mas­ter­piece

A Mas­sive 55-Hour Chrono­log­i­cal Playlist of Bob Dylan Songs: Stream 763 Tracks

Clas­sic Songs by Bob Dylan Re-Imag­ined as Pulp Fic­tion Book Cov­ers: “Like a Rolling Stone,” “A Hard Rain’s A‑Gonna Fall” & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (4) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (4)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Tony Soll says:

    I was there. It was exceed­ing­ly cool. Actu­al­ly, see­ing the Paul But­ter­field Band and Howl­ing Wolf was even cool­er.

  • Chris DiFonso says:

    Judg­ing from how loud the “boos” are, it sounds like most of the folks in the crowd want to rush the stage and phys­i­cal­ly attack Dylan. In their eyes, he was a trai­tor! In the sound­track to Mar­tin Scors­ese’s doc­u­men­tary “No Direc­tion Home” the last track is of a live per­for­mance after this New­port Folk Fes­ti­val con­cert. Dylan and his back­up band are get­ting ready to play when a man in the audi­ence very loud­ly shouts out, “Judas!” There is scat­tered applause fol­low­ing this. So ridicu­lous.

  • Tom Elliott says:

    Use your imag­i­na­tion though. It was a slap in the face for the acoustic folk scene. They knew what they liked and this was not it. As Dylan did bril­liant­ly, they expressed them­selves too.

  • Jerry says:

    An appro­pri­ate song for a bold move. It proved to be the best thing, finan­cial­ly. Not gonna live in pover­ty no more.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.