37 years after he enraged folk-music purists, Dylan returns to Newport fest

Thursday, August 1st 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEWPORT, R.I. (AP) _ It was a watershed event in popular music: Bob Dylan, folk music's young minstrel, taking the stage with an electric guitar slung over his shoulder.

To the die-hard folkies at Newport on July 25, 1965, it was an outrage.

Thirty-seven years later, Dylan is coming back, headlining Saturday's program at the Apple & Eve Newport Folk Festival.

His long-awaited return stirs memories of the day when he ``plugged in,'' was booed mercilessly, by most accounts, and in the process knocked down barriers between folk and rock.

``There was an element of extreme Puritanism and tradition in the folk crowd, who really did feel that rock 'n' roll was just one big sellout,'' says music historian Tim Riley, author of ``Hard Rain: A Dylan Commentary.''

``It was like Dylan showed up at Newport and announced he was joining the other side.''

At 24, the skinny, wild-haired singer from Minnesota had been embraced as the spiritual and artistic leader of the American Folk Revival, which flourished on college campuses in the early '60s and was championed by artists like Pete Seeger and Joan Baez.

Newport was the movement's Mecca.

``If you wanted to get the attention of the folk music hierarchy, you did it at Newport,'' says biographer Michael Gray, author of ``Song & Dance Man III: The Art of Bob Dylan.''

Up to that point, a musical Mason-Dixon line had divided folk and rock.

``Folk was something that the intelligentsia embraced,'' Riley says. ``It had this air of pretension and exclusivity.''

Rock was younger and dirtier. To folkies, the hip-swinging antics of Elvis Presley embodied rock 'n' roll. The televised swooning of Beatles fans didn't help.

``These people looked on rock 'n' roll as real kids' stuff,'' Riley says.

By the mid-'60s, Dylan was being called the ``voice of his generation.'' His poignant lyrics became the soundtrack to the civil rights movement, and he gave voice to rising anti-war sentiment over Vietnam.

``Things were really heating up at that time,'' says Jack White, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for WPRI-TV in Providence. White was a 22-year-old college senior and rabid Dylan fan when he attended the '65 festival.

``Dylan was like our spokesperson. ... He was a modern-day Walt Whitman.''

But Dylan had begun to branch out musically as early as 1964. His third album, ``Another Side of Bob Dylan,'' contained few songs with political overtones; many were love songs.

``He was already starting to make the folk music establishment uneasy,'' says Gray.

The 1965 festival was Dylan's third appearance at Newport, and his Sunday afternoon set was the most anticipated of the weekend.

In April, he'd released ``Bringing It all Back Home,'' an album with six electric songs and six acoustic. Then, just four days before Newport, ``Like a Rolling Stone'' hit the airwaves.

Still, no one seemed prepared for Dylan to walk onstage toting a Fender guitar, accompanied by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. They tore into a raucous version of ``Maggie's Farm,'' and the crowd was stunned.

Some say the booing that followed was for Dylan, while others claim it was really over the poor sound quality.

White says his animosity was directed squarely at Dylan.

``There has been a lot of revisionist history,'' he says. ``I know I booed because I was really upset and I felt betrayed. I think the majority of people who were there felt the same way.''

According to some accounts, Pete Seeger had to be physically restrained from using an ax to cut the power cable.

Dylan played just three songs and left the stage to an avalanche of catcalls.

A few minutes later, he returned, this time alone with an acoustic guitar and harmonica. He played two songs: ``Mr. Tambourine Man,'' and ``It's All Over Now, Baby Blue,'' the latter a fitting requiem for his career as a folksinger.

Dylan has never spoken publicly about his reception at Newport, and declined to be interviewed for this article.

For 37 years, he never came back to the festival.

But his disastrous performance that day sparked a music revolution.

``It turns out the people who were booing were the ones that were in the dark,'' Riley says. ``It's like a Methodist showing up at a Puritan meeting. Puritanism is just gone. It's over.''

Over the next year, ``folk-rock'' became its own genre. Bands like The Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young fused folk, country, blues and rock. Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor, the Eagles and others owe a debt of gratitude to Dylan, Riley says.

Dylan himself teamed with a barnstorming Canadian bar band called The Hawks _ later renamed The Band _ and embarked on a now-legendary world tour. At one show in England, hecklers called him ``Judas.''

In the year after Newport, Dylan released two of his best-loved albums: ``Highway 61 Revisited'' and ``Blonde on Blonde.''

``He was at the apex of his genius,'' Riley says. ``He made the whole booing thing so irrelevant just by the quality of the music he churned out after Newport.''

For years, the folk festival invited Dylan back, but his touring schedule sometimes got in the way, and some years his fee was prohibitively high, says festival producer Bob Jones.

When organizers announced that the 61-year-old would be part of this year's lineup, tickets sold out faster than in any year in recent memory.

These days, Dylan is known for a businesslike approach to performing live, and some doubt he'll acknowledge the historical significance of his appearance Saturday.

``I wish that I could believe that he attached as much significance to his return to Newport as the fans and the media do,'' Riley says. ``I'm pretty sure that for him, it's just another gig.''