I didn’t get to Woodstock—I was working that weekend and anyway, in retrospect, three days of peace, love and mud might not have been my cup of tea. But I did bear witness to another high-water mark in music history. I was there the night Bob Dylan cut the cords that tied him to his folk music beginnings, as he played the first electric set of his career at the Newport Folk Festival.
It was 1965, and I had just completed my freshman year at the University of Rhode Island. My friends and I were mad for music. Indeed, it’s hard to convey now just how important the music and musicians of the day were to us. We spent endless hours parsing the fine points of Dylan and Beatles lyrics, with far more intensity than we brought to bear on “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” or any of the other classics we studied in English lit.
In those days, the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals were held in a big grassy field in the heart of Newport, R.I. The festival organizers were open to new music that stretched the boundaries separating rock, in all its varieties, from the more traditional forms. Janis Joplin, for example, performed at the folk festival in 1968. Sadly, I missed her show, but I did see Blood Sweat & Tears at the jazz festival a year later. Janis Joplin, folk? David Clayton-Thomas, jazz? Well, why not? That’s how permeable the borderlines were back then in Newport.
Bob Dylan was a particular favorite of mine. I discovered his music as a senior in high school and was instantly hooked. I played my copy of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan until the grooves in the vinyl wore down—much to my parents’ displeasure. Fans of Frank Sinatra and musical comedies, they didn’t like Dylan’s rasp. Talking blues was not their thing.
The 1965 Newport Folk Festival was to be the first time I would see my idol in person. My best friend and I got tickets for his performance on Sunday night, July 25. I don’t remember any of the other acts that evening. All I remember is Dylan striding onstage with an electric guitar. Backed by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and with Al Kooper on organ, he launched into a raucous version of “Maggie’s Farm,” followed by his newly released hit single “Like a Rolling Stone.” My friend and I were mesmerized. We applauded madly, thrilled that our favorite musician was championing rock. We were teenagers, and rock ‘n roll was our natural metier. We had never been folk purists, only Dylan fans, and we were stunned to hear boos and catcalls issuing from the folkies in the audience all around us.
“Why are they booing?” I asked my friend. Equally clueless, she replied, “I don’t know!”
As it happens, that question remains a lively topic of debate to this day. Some maintain that the booing was a response to the lousy sound quality and the brevity of Dylan’s set (he did just one more electric number before retreating offstage, but was persuaded to come back out afterward to sing acoustic versions of “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”). But most people agree that the negative response was a huge vote of no confidence from Dylan’s fan base in the folk community, who wanted no part of rock. That’s certainly the feeling my friend and I picked up that night, and Dylan ran into more of the same animus on his tour of England the next year (famously documented in Martin Scorsese’s 2005 film No Direction Home).
My friend and I may have been in the minority that night in Newport, but in the end we were on the right side of history. Dylan went on to create genre-busting masterworks that expanded the definition of rock ‘n roll and helped the music mature. Bob Dylan is still making music in multiple genres to this day, and I for one am still listening.