ISLAMABAD-The poet in black struck an angry chord and told his people how it feels. “I got a head full of ideas that are drivin’ me insane,” Bob Dylan barked over a skiffle rock clatter called “Maggie’s Farm”, a servant-class metaphor for breaking free of the oppressive, conformist shackles of 1960s America. The song ended in a flurry of bluesy discord, and a roar went up unlike any heard in popular music before. Half shock and excitement, half dissent and betrayal, a torrid clash of howls and boos. At the side of the stage, organiser Pete Seeger reportedly demanded an axe to cut the microphone cord.
Fifty-five years ago today, the traditionalists of 1965’s Newport Folk Festival, Rhode Island, had watched Dylan walk onstage with an unannounced band, plug in a guitar and play his first ever electric set. An act that kicked open the door for generations of musicians, from The Beatles to Radiohead, to plot their own creative paths on their own terms, to challenge their audiences with the sounds of the future rather than pander politely to established tastes.
But the historic spark of the moment had, in the words of radio broadcaster John Gilliland, “electrified one half of his audience, and electrocuted the other”.
Over the course of his first four acoustic-and-harmonica folk albums, Dylan’s incisive, poetic and charismatic rebel songs had made him the primary voice of youth protest culture. At the 1963 Newport festival he’d gained godhead status with a defiant rendition of “Blowin’ In The Wind” accompanied by Peter, Paul And Mary, Joan Baez and The Freedom Singers.
So when, just two traumatic years later, Dylan plugged in for three songs – “Maggie’s Farm”, his recent single release “Like a Rolling Stone” and “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” – on the very same stage, he was hectored from all sides of folk philosophy. The purists objected to his betrayal of their righteous and historic music: it was, critic Greil Marcus would say, “as if something precious and delicate was being dashed to the ground and stomped”. The counter-culture progressives, meanwhile, objected to Dylan turning his back on the cause. Over the coming year he’d play to increasingly angry and hostile audiences, heckling, booing and storming out of his shows across the globe. He’d become, in some eyes, the “Judas!” of protest folk.
“A lot of people coming to Newport were very upset about the world in general,” blues folk singer Elijah Wald told author Spencer Leigh for a new Dylan biography Outlaw Blues. “The weekend that Dylan went electric is the weekend that Lyndon Johnson doubled the military draft and firmly committed the US to the war in Vietnam. Many festivalgoers hoped that Dylan and the other artists would do what they did in 1963. Everybody would join arms and the crowd would sing ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘We Shall Overcome’ and it would make them feel that they were not alone and were part of something that was going to change the world.”
For Dylan, though, going electric was part of a grand tradition of confrontational artistic progress. In 20th-century music, to that point, precedents for artists refusing to give their audiences what they wanted were rare indeed. Jazz maestros like Thelonious Monk might cut shows short if they weren’t feeling inspired, but all of the much-vaunted rebel antics of rock’n’roll, from Jerry Lee Lewis’s burning pianos to Keith Moon’s exploding drumkits, were in the name of crowd-pleasing entertainment. In art and literature, however, the great artists – Picasso, Joyce, Eliot, Orwell, Lawrence, Beckett – rarely pandered, and that’s where Dylan’s aspirations lay. He was embedded in the more provocative forms of Fifties and Sixties culture, a sometime visitor to Warhol’s Factory and an admirer of the Beat writers; Howl author Allen Ginsberg was a close friend and Dylan loved how Burroughs had shuffled the pages of Naked Lunch before publication.