50 YEARS AGO TONIGHT: Bob Dylan Goes Electric

Bob Dylan – Maggie s Farm Live at the Newport Folk Festival '63 '65 Full from kostas palaiokostas on Vimeo.

NEW YORK TIMES: Tonight is the 50th anniversary of Dylanageddon: the night Bob Dylan savaged the Newport Folk Festival by making loud, electrified noise at a sanctuary that had never been thus sullied. The story of his 1965 assault on Newport is very well known. Its effects have been contemplated ad nauseam. Its details show up in every Dylan biography. It’s so essential to the Dylan story that it may even have engendered folk songs of its own. So the idea of a book to commemorate this geezer milestone seems unnecessary, to put it kindly.

But what a surprise “Dylan Goes Electric!” turns out to be. This splendid, colorful work of musicology and cultural history is written by Elijah Wald, whose broad range of other books (“Narcocorrido,” “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ’n’ Roll” and “Global Minstrels”) allows him to approach Newport with a broad Dylancover3base of knowledge. He is perhaps best known for “The Mayor of Macdougal Street,” a collaboration with Dave Van Ronk that became Mr. Van Ronk’s posthumously published memoir. That book reads like a labor of love. This one does, too.

Mr. Wald is a superb analyst of the events he describes. And his analyses fly in the face of conventional wisdom. Even his introduction includes enough startling context to indicate “Dylan Goes Electric!” will be seeing the old story with new eyes. What if Mr. Dylan, with his new non-folk songs “Maggie’s Farm,” “Like a Rolling Stone” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” was not presenting something mind-blowingly visionary, as he is in most versions of the Newport myth, but signaling a retreat into solipsism and selfishness instead?

“In most tellings, Dylan represents youth and the future, and the people who booed were stuck in the dying past,” Mr. Wald writes. “But there is another version, in which the audience represents youth and hope, and Dylan was shutting himself off behind a wall of electric noise, locking himself in a citadel of wealth and power.” The Bob Dylan who became the spirit of the 1960s — that is, the hipper second half of the decade — was part phantom, after all. He had his motorcycle accident, holed up in Woodstock and in 1968 asked an old friend “How do you know I’m not — for the war?”

Mr. Wald knows that it is impossible to think about the Dylan of the Newport Folk Festival — the one who arrived as a new deity in 1963, the one who supposedly divided the place into a battlefield of angry factionalism two years later — without thinking equally hard about Pete Seeger: the folk music movement that Seeger built, the ideals it nurtured, the ways it spun away from those ideals as folk turned commercial, the story of “what Newport meant to him, and the lights that dimmed when the amplifiers sucked up the power.” MORE