This Day in Jewish History: Bob Dylan Goes Electric

On July 25th, 1965, Bob Dylan, the 24-year-old idol of the American folk-music scene, plugged in a Fender Stratocaster guitar and flabbergasted the audience

David Green
David B. Green
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Joan Baez and Bob Dylan in Washington, D.C. in 1963.
Joan Baez and Bob Dylan in Washington, D.C. in 1963.Credit: Rowland Scherman
David Green
David B. Green

July 25, 1965, was the day that Bob Dylan, the 24-year-old idol of the American folk-music scene, plugged in a Fender Stratocaster guitar and flabbergasted the audience at the Newport Folk Festival with an all-electric set. The audience reaction was emotional and loud, but even today, 49 years later, witnesses cannot agree on whether listeners were booing or cheering, and if the former, whether it was because they were angry at Dylan for going electric, for the poor sound quality or because the set was so short.

That year marked Dylan’s third straight appearance at the Newport, Rhode Island, music festival, an event that had been founded in 1959. In 1963, Dylan performed “Blowin’ in the Wind” together with Joan Baez; Peter, Paul and Mary and others, and the following year he sang “With God On Our Side” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” — all quite acoustically. In fact, just a day earlier, on Saturday, July 24, he had participated in a ballad workshop, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and harmonica in a three-song set,.

That night, however, he decided, apparently on a whim, that the following day’s gig was going to be with amplified instruments.

Secret rehearsal

Dylan quickly organized a five-man band, turning first to Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield. Both Kooper, on organ, and blues guitarist Bloomfield had joined Dylan in June for the recording of “Like a Rolling Stone,” which had been released the week before the festival. Dylan asked Bloomfield to line up the remaining musicians, and the latter recruited two colleagues from the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, drummer Sam Lay and bassist Jerome Arnold, as well as a high-school friend, Barry Goldberg, for keyboard. Late that night, the ad hoc ensemble assembled at the home of festival founder and producer George Wein for a secret rehearsal.

The following evening, Dylan and company came on stage after traditional musician Cousin Emmy and the New Lost City Ramblers, who ended their set with “Turkey in the Straw.” Though allocated 45 minutes of playing time, they had sufficed to prepare only three songs: “Maggie’s Farm,” “Rolling Stone” and “Phantom Engineer,” an early version of “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.”

Aside from its brevity, the set had technical problems, and much of the audience seemed to respond with boos. But the audience also begged for an encore. (Sound mixer Joe Boyd, later a legendary record producer, recalled that, at an outdoor show, “a crowd shouting ‘more, more, more’ at the end of Dylan’s three songs sounded very much like booing.”)

The evening’s emcee, Peter Yarrow, called a reluctant Dylan back to the stage. He delivered two more songs, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar: “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” He then left the stage — and didn’t return to Newport until 2002.

The audience at the Newport Folk Festival, July 2010.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Judas redux

But that was only the beginning of plugged-in Dylan.

A month later, he performed at New York’s Forest Hills Stadium. Two of the musicians accompanying him that evening, Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm, were members of a band called the Hawks, which in its full complement became his very electric backup band during his world tour over the next year. The Hawks, of course, later became known as The Band.

It was in that tour, during a show in Manchester, England the following May, that several fans assailed Dylan verbally, calling him “Judas.” The always gracious Dylan responded by saying, “I don’t believe you, you’re a liar,” before ordering the band to play the next number “f---ing loud.”

Later he thought to put things into perspective. In a 2012 interview with Rolling Stone, the artist formerly known as Robert Allen Zimmerman responded to charges that lyrics to some of his songs bore uncanny resemblance to the work of other authors by suggesting that those accusing him of plagiarism “are the same people that tried to pin the name Judas on me [in 1966]. Judas, the most hated name in human history! If you think you’ve been called a bad name, try to work your way out from under that. Yeah, and for what? For playing an electric guitar? As if that is in some kind of way equitable to betraying our Lord and delivering him up to be crucified.”

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