This past weekend, the 2015 Folk Festival took place once again in Newport, RI. July 25 also marks the 50th anniversary of Bob Dylan’s plugging in his guitar at Freebody Park in Newport and blasting out “Maggie’s Farm” before introducing “Like a Rolling Stone.” To many in the audience—folk purist and political activists—it was an outrage of unthinkable and unforgiveable proportions. Without question, writes NPR, it was a turning point in music history.
In Dylan Goes Electric!: Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night that Split the Sixties, music historian Elijah Wald explains that it was more complicated than Dylan just going electric.
There always was friction in the folk scene between the people who really believed that this music should be done authentically, should be done right, and people who just thought, “You know, this is fun music, let’s do it however we want. Let’s do it in ways that are fun.” There were a lot of people on the purist side who thought the pop-folkies were taking great music and turning it into tripe. And there were plenty of people on the other side who thought the purists were being, you know, a bunch of silly prigs.
Dylan had come to Newport like he always did, with an acoustic guitar, planning to sing his songs and go home. But, as it turned out, the Butterfield Blues Band was there, and Al Cooper (sic) was there, and Al Cooper (sic) and Mike Bloomfield — who had just joined the Butterfield band — were the main players on “Like a Rolling Stone.” He pulled it together at the last moment. They did one rehearsal the night before. It was a complete surprise. Dylan thought of it maybe 24 hours before everyone else heard it, but it was a surprise for him, too.
That was the weekend that Lyndon Johnson fully committed the United States to victory in Vietnam. The civil rights movement was falling apart. SNCC [The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee] — which was the group that had brought all the kids down for Freedom Summer the previous year — now was throwing all the white members out, and the new chant was “black power.” That communal feeling of the first half of the ’60s was getting harder and harder to feel like it was all going to work and the world was going to be a better place.
It’s easy to forget that what most of us think of as seminal events of the sixties—the Vietnam War, the hippies, the drugs—happened after 1965. Read more of Arun Rath’s interview with Elijah Wald on how Dylan’s going electric was the defining moment for the birth of rock and of clashing cultures in America.