WUMB January Program Guide

Dylan Goes Electric!

Evolution or revolution? Much like the question of nature vs. nurture, it is often hard to tell for sure. Often it is some of each. That is certainly the case with the subject of Elijah Wald’s new book: Dylan’s electric performance at the Newport Folk Festival fifty years ago. Was it a masterstroke by a visionary poet/singer or was it the natural evolution of both Dylan as an artist and the Newport Folk Festival itself.

Wald deals with the event itself in a single, succinct chapter late in the book, both describing it and dealing with many of the myths surrounding it. Was it a brilliant performance? No. Was it badly rehearsed? You bet. Did people love it? Yes. Did people hate it? Yes. Was it loud? Oh, Yeah. It seems that Michael Bloomfield has his amp set to stun. Did Pete Seeger have an ax? No…well, at least not at that moment.

He likewise deals with the aftermath of the performance in another single chapter. After all, this is the part of the story we know best. The part we’re living through.

He spends the bulk of the book dealing with the evolutionary part of the story. The evolution of Dylan as an artist, from his arrival in NYC to the moment he strapped on that electric guitar. It also deals with the evolution of the folk scene using Pete Seeger as exhibit A.

Most importantly, for me at least, he also deals with the evolution of the Newport Folk Festival from communal, participatory gathering to the star driven affair that it is today. It seems that Dylan’s electric performance in ’65 was the death knell for the kind of Newport where urban folk fans got to rub elbows, and even share songs, with the rural legends of folk music from Mississippi John Hurt to Mother Maybelle Carter. It sputtered for a couple more years after, before going on hiatus.

As much as Dylan’s performance in ’65 was a breaking point, it also forecast what Newport was to become. Namely an event that has more to do with a concert at the Xfinity Center or TD Gardens than it does with festivals like Falcon Ridge or Kerrville where sharing songs around all night camp fires is as important.

As with all of Wald’s other books this one is well researched. He was given unprecedented access to recordings, both audio and video, of the event and interviewed any one and every one that he could find who were present. Once again, as usual with Elijah, it is well written, reading more like an engaging novel where the characters are people you know. In short, a real page turner for a work of non-fiction.

If this is a subject that interests you, and since you’ve read this far I suspect it does, you owe it to yourself to see Murray Learner’s documentary film “Festival.” It’s still available on DVD and, will be offered as a premium during our October Fundraiser, 10/16-26!

-Dave Palmater

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