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.

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Bob Dylan in Greenwich Village, 1962

“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.

“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

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Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival 1965

“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.

“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.

Dylan’s Muse

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.

“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.

Like a Rolling Stone by Bob Dylan, 1965

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Author of “Be Somebody — Extraordinary Lives” (published 2021); 2019 Telly Award for Documentary @IconicVoices.tv; ex-publisher @Forbes

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