The Newport Folk Festival was founded in 1959 by George Wein, founder of the already-well-established Newport Jazz Festival. Members of the supporting board included Theodore Bikel, Oscar Brand, Pete Seeger and Albert Grossman.
The festival introduced a number of performers who went on to become major stars, most notably Joan Baez in 1959, and Bob Dylan at the 1963 festival. It also featured many country-blues artists like Johnny Cash, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. However, the 1965 festival became famous as one of the watershed events in modern American music.
On Saturday, July 24, 1965, Bob Dylan performed three solo acoustic numbers, “All I Really Want to Do”, “If You Gotta Go, Go Now”, and “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” at a Newport workshop. Dylan was irritated by what he considered condescending remarks about the Paul Butterfield Blues Band made by Newport Folk Festival organizer Alan Lomax. Dylan made a spontaneous decision that day that he would challenge the Festival by performing with a fully amplified band.
On the night of Sunday, July 25, Dylan’s appearance was sandwiched between Cousin Emmy and the Sea Island Singers, two very traditional folk acts. The band that went on stage with Dylan included two musicians who had played on his recently released single, “Like a Rolling Stone”: Mike Bloomfield on lead guitar and Al Kooper on organ.
Master of Ceremonies Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary, introduced Dylan with, “Ladies and gentlemen, the person that’s going to come up now has a limited amount of time … His name is Bob Dylan.” The band took the stage, plugged in their electric guitars and launched into a blistering version of “Maggie’s Farm.” Within a few bars of the song, the boos began from the audience and continued throughout the three song set. After playing “Like a Rolling Stone.” Dylan closed with an early version of “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” titled “Phantom Engineer.” As the band left the stage there was a mixture of booing and clapping from the audience. Peter Yarrow returned to the microphone and begged Dylan to continue performing., Dylan returned to the stage and performed two songs on acoustic guitar for the audience: “Mr. Tambourine Man”, and then, as his farewell to Newport, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”
It has been argued for years that the boos were from outraged folk fans, who disliked Dylan playing an electric guitar. Al Kooper, and others present at Newport, have disagreed with this interpretation, and argued that the audience was upset by poor sound quality, and the boos were brought on by Dylan’s short set, not the fact that Dylan had gone electric. Kooper said: “The reason they booed is because he only played for fifteen minutes, when everybody else played for forty-five minutes or an hour. They were feeling ripped off. Wouldn’t you? They didn’t give a shit about us being electric. They just wanted more.”
Poor sound quality was the reason Pete Seeger (gave for disliking the performance. He was watching the performance backstage and says he told the audio technicians, “Get that distortion out of his voice … It’s terrible. If I had an axe, I’d chop the microphone cable right now.” Seeger has also said, however, that he only wanted to cut the cables because he wanted the audience to hear Dylan’s lyrics properly, because he thought they were important.
Joe Boyd, responsible for the sound mixing at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, said, “I think there were a lot of people who were upset about the rock band, but I think it was pretty split. I think probably more people liked it than didn’t.”
In an interview in Mojo magazine, Murray Lerner, director the documentary The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan Live at the Newport Folk Festival 1963-1965 said, “I think they were definitely booing Dylan and a little bit Pete Yarrow because he was so flustered. He was not expecting that audience’s reaction and he was concerned about Bob’s image, since they were part of the same family of artists through Al Grossman. But I absolutely think that they were booing Dylan going electric.”
Three months before Dylan’s performance, the rock band, The Byrds, released an electric version of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” The Byrds’ version featured traditional folk harmonies soaring over Roger McGuinn’s jangly 12-string Rickenbacker guitar and a driving beat, which hit #1 in late June 1965, three weeks before Dylan’s performance. The combination of those two events unleashed the folk-rock explosion in popular music. The Beatles’ George Harrison introduced his 12-string guitar and the Fab Four created a Byrds-like sound on their Rubber Soul and Revolver LPs. This opened the floodgates for artists like The Searchers, The Lovin’ Spoonful, The Mamas and the Papas, Donovan, the Turtles, Sonny & Cher and Simon & Garfunkel.
If Bob Dylan had faded into obscurity during the 1970s, he would still be considered as one of the most important artists of the 20th century based on his output of dozens of classic songs and his electric performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.