Bob Dylan In Newport, 1965
The fans at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival came to hear protest songs, but when Dylan played rock, they started protesting.
Robert Zimmerman had the qualities we usually find in great innovators — curiosity, vision, instinct, and most importantly, guts. What else could have motivated him to leave Hibbing, Minnesota, and turn up as a 21-year-old folk music singer named Bob Dylan in New York City’s Greenwich Village? He did it for the reason pitchers throw changeups — to break the rhythm. His dream was inspired by the music he listened to while hanging around downstairs cafes, and the moment he heard this new sound, he wanted to be part of it.
“You’re born, you know, the wrong name, wrong parents. I mean, that happens. You call yourself what you want to call yourself. This is the land of the free.”
Dylan came to find his artistic muse in Greenwich Village, but first, he had to find something to eat. To get gigs, he reinvented himself as a street musician, which taught him to play what worked for whatever his audience of the moment wanted. He wrote songs like a short-order cook, if the crowd liked it he could whip it up, as he said in his Nobel Prize speech (literature, 2016):
“You had to have a wide repertoire, and you had to know what to play and when because I was playing for small crowds, sometimes no more than four or five people in a room on a street corner. Some songs were intimate, some you had to shout to be heard.”
One occasion started his transformation. Early in his New York period, Dylan went to hear the Byrds perform a cover of his song, Mr. Tambourine Man. They were a new group that sang to the beat of electric guitar arrangements. Dylan didn’t just listen, as he later wrote: “I picked up the vernacular…internalized it,” and it liberated him from the narrow constraints of acoustic guitars in a period when “electric” had the same impact as saying “atomic waste” today.
According to Byrds’ lead guitarist, David Crosby, within months Dylan started an electric guitar band and created a fusion of folk, blues, that sounded suspiciously like rock ‘n roll. It was certainly a new sound and it spoke to a generation trying waiting in the folk music departure lounge:
“I had principles and sensibilities and informed view of the world. I wanted to write songs unlike anything anybody ever heard.”
Change is ugly when it happens, at least to those who are sentimental about the past. Dylan’s biggest hits in the early 60s, songs like Blowing in the Wind, struck a chord in the hearts of young Americans who opposed racism:
“How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?” His 1964 ballad,”
Or as in his song The Times, They Are a-Changin, where he united the racial theme to the Vietnam War:
“There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’/ It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls / For the times they are a-changin’.”
Dylan became more than a musician, he became a demagogue and he started to be defined by ideology even more than he realized. When he appeared at the Newport Folk Festival, the crowd was anxious to learn about the latest inequality. What they got was something very different.
Newport, Rhode Island 1965
As Dylan walked out on stage on July 25th, he looked more like Marlon Brando than Woody Guthrie. With black jeans and high heeled boots, sunglasses, and a black leather jacket, he could have been a motorcycle ruffian and the impact was visible on the faces in the crowd.
Dylan opened the act with Maggie’s Farm, sounding suspiciously like a declaration of independence from the protest movement. That’s because it was. If Dylan was making a statement, he made it in boldface. He had enough of folk music purists, he was 24-years-old, and he was ready to move on.
“Well, I try my best / To be just like I am / But everybody wants you / To be just like them / They say sing while you slave…”
The next song sent an unambiguous message. Dylan walked across the stage and picked up not just any electric guitar but a Fender Stratocaster, placing his acoustic guitar on a rack. It was like a western cowboy hanging up his spurs, and to his audience at the Newport Folk Festival, it was like your hero saying he would never ride again.
Then he broke out into the bouncy, upbeat tempo of Like a Rolling Stone, a six-minute ballad of delicious schadenfreude about a jet setting female who fell on hard times, bad men, and drugs. What the hell, the audience could be heard to say? Dylan later confirmed it was the best song he ever wrote: “I wrote it. I didn’t fail. It was straight.”
“Once upon a time you dressed so fine, Threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you? Now you don’t talk so loud, now you don’t seem so proud, About having to be scrounging your next meal…”
As Dylan roared the lyrics, the crowd began to squirm. By the time he got to the refrain, “How does it feel?” they let him know, they didn’t hold back. The booing continued until he left the stage. They came to hear protest songs not rock and roll about a girl down on her luck. They were fascinated by war, racism, poverty, and a story out of cinema verite wasn’t what they paid their money for. It was a musical rebuke to the folk orthodoxy, and they protested the messenger.
To accomplish his vision, he went beyond the vocals and instructed lead guitarist Mike Bloomfield of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band:
“I don’t want you to play any of that B.B. King shit, none of that fucking blues. I want you to play something else.”
The “something else” had a dark side. Dylan wanted to be free to play real music, and to do that he had to liberate himself from the music orthodoxy that says ”sing while you slave.” Dylan aimed his electric guitar like a blunt instrument at the heart of the Radical Chic movement, author Tom Wolfe’s name for those who talk a hypocritical game of charity in return for wearing virtue on their sleeves. This would become a recurring theme for Dylan, elite shame throwers getting their kicks demeaning hard-working men and women who had to earn their bread. He followed up this point with a direct jab at the holier than thou crowd in 1964 with My Back Pages:
“…I aimed my hand At the mongrel dogs who teach, Fearing that I’d become my enemy In the instant that I preach…Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now…”
Like a Rolling Stone was not a departure as much as it was an offspring of folk. Dylan lifted it out of the ashes of folk music and the fiery angst of protest songs, then wove in the underlying structure of rock & roll, and Dylan later admitted the song was was “a chip off of Ritchie Valens’ La Bamba. It blended musical types and asked his audience to let your ears do the listening and the heart will follow. Stop thinking so hard, it’s a song, he was trying to tell the crowd. This isn’t about you, we would say today.
When Rolling Stone Magazine voted Like a Rolling Stone the greatest song in rock ‘n roll history, the judges said that it “thoroughly challenged and transformed the artistic conventions of its time, for all time.” Symbolizing the power of the music is the fact that the magazine is called Rolling Stone (Mick Jagger’s rock group took their name from Dylan as well).
That was Dylan’s brilliance, his music changed the vernacular, and it was also his problem. He may not have realized it, but he walked into a battle zone in Newport, the same one that runs in a continuous ebb and flow throughout history. Dylan never rejected the protest movement, he just felt the political message was getting in the way of good songs that people wanted to hear.
As he remarked to the Nobel Prize judges in Stockholm in 2015:
“Songs are alive in the land of the living. They’re Meant To Be Sung, not read. In the way that Shakespeare’s plays Were Meant To Be acted on the stage. I hope some of you get the chance to listen to these lyrics the way they were intended to be heard.”
Dylan’s former fans were “reading” his music when they described Like a Rolling Stone as “the worst sort of heresy,” a religious term ruling elites use to defend a closed ideology that wants to maintain control over who, what, and when we innovate. They had no idea how right they were. After all, heresy is just another name for innovation.