Dylan Goes Electric, by Elijah Wald (Book Review)
Reading Elijah Wald’s Dylan Goes Electric!: Newport, Seeger, Dylan & the Night that Split the Sixties (Dey Street/Harper-Collins Publishers, 2015) reproduces in wonderful, eye-opening detail the environment of the Newport Folk Festival during July of 1965, when Bob Dylan appeared onstage on Sunday evening fronting an electric band, sang three rock songs, and the world changed. To place the momentous events of Newport into the social and political climate of the times, Wald provides extensive mini-biographies of Pete Seeger, the guru of folk music and the old left in America, and Bob Dylan, the voice of an emerging youth culture and rock generation that continues to this day. For 50 years, rumors and myths have swirled around that evening, about what Dylan intended and how Seeger reacted to the situation. In this carefully researched and extensively annotated account, Wald weaves an exciting and involving story about clashing cultures and long-term outcomes. For students of folk music, rock music, and the emergence of Americana, this book is a must-read.
Pete Seeger, by the time the Newport Folk Festival rolled around in 1965, was the leading light in the midst of a great folk revival that had been growing for years, centered in Greenwich Village in New York City. His career, in which he had traveled throughout the country supporting radical causes, unions, and civil rights, had focused on finding wonderful local folk performers and bringing them to New York and to Newport to perform. During the ’60s, Newport was featuring groups like Peter, Paul and Mary, individuals like Joan Baez, Jean Ritchie, and Southern gospel groups like the Staple Singers, as well as African dancers. Seeger emphasized the singing, playing, and sharing of folk music as a way to build community and discover connections.
Wald identiefies four major strains in folk music. Community music-making was encouraged, as young people played, sang, and danced together, often at summer camps and festivals. There was the preservation of songs and styles associated with particular regional or ethnic traditions. As such, rural black blues singers and gospel groups — as well as white rural mountain fiddlers and dance callers, or singing preachers — were all a part of this movement. Peoples’ music was to be celebrated in performance and introduced to those who might otherwise not hear it. Finally, there was the growth of a professional performance scene, represented by people like Josh White, Peter, Paul & Mary, and Seeger himself, whose enormous skills before large audiences brought comfortable middle-class people together to hear and sing about his radical causes. Not all of these strands were fully compatible.
Dylan emerged from the myths and legends of who he is and what he stands for as an intensely private person, determined not to be pigeon-holed or stereotyped into a particular role or image, while always seeking to express himself through his distinctive poetry and style. By 1965, Dylan was no longer Bobby Zimmerman from Hibbing, Minnesota, but his legend wasn’t yet fully formed either. He had tried to create a new self through what can only have been lies he told about himself. Yet, his musical wanderings brought him to Greenwich Village in 1961 when it was a boiling pot of poets, writers, singers, songwriters, beatniks, and political radicals sharing their music and ideas. It had been such for decades. Dylan — awkward and unformed, always something of a loner — fit in and thrived in this environment, hanging out and performing in the small folk, blues, and jazz clubs and bars that proliferated there. He honed his skills in front of growing audiences, releasing his first introductory self-titled album in 1962. By his first performance at Newport in 1963, as a guest of Joan Baez, he had four albums out. He was writing and singing folk and protest songs which were bringing him acclaim and leaving him uncomfortable, as he worked to forge a new musical and personal self. His transition from folksinger to rocker was becoming inevitable, and the Newport Folk Festival scheduled for July 1965 was the venue to unveil it all.
The Newport Folk Festival was established in 1959 as an offshoot of the already established Newport Jazz Festival. It quickly became a showplace for introducing folk performers from around the world, as well as emerging recording artists. The design of sing-alongs, workshops, and concerts reflected Seeger’s priorities and, in many ways, established a pattern for succeeding festivals. By 1965, Newport was attracting a youthful audience which had experienced the assassination of John F. Kennedy and was becoming embroiled in the war in Vietnam. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones had both appeared in America and the British Invasion was well underway. In the chapters detailing the events of 1965 at Newport, Wald carefully dissects myth and legend from what he can verify. He carefully notes that the memories of those involved have changed over time. Even Pete Seeger had included elements in his memory that may or may not ever have happened. Films of the time have been clipped and re-arranged to create the environment the filmmaker wished to promote. By reviewing every piece of film, each newspaper review and account, by interviewing all the principals still available, and carefully stitching together the events of Dylan’s appearance on stage with a Stratocaster in hand and backed by members of the Chicago-based Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Wald provides what must become the definitive version of this event that he describes as the moment that split the world. Seeger was the past, Dylan the future.
Elijah Wald has been a musician since age seven and a writer since the early 1980s. He has published more than a thousand articles, mostly about folk, roots, and international music for various magazines and newspapers, including over ten years as “world music” writer for the Boston Globe. In the current millenium, he has been devoting most of his time to book projects, including volumes on such disparate subjects as Delta blues (Escaping the Delta), Mexican drug ballads (Narcocorrido), hitchhiking (Riding with Strangers), and a broad social history of American popular music (How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll).
Dylan Goes Electric!: Newport, Seeger, Dylan & the Night That Split the Sixties captures a central era and moment in the development of the America we live in now, as Wald develops the idea of moving from a period of relative comfort, peace, and middle-class self-asssurance toward a youth-oriented culture that was roiling with rebellion and discontent. The book is extensively annotated.
Wald recreates a world I was on the edge of. I saw Pete Seeger live in concert in Houston Hall at the University of Pennsylvania in the early ’60s, Josh White at the same place. The early sea chanty recording of the Almanac Singers was in my home’s record library. The Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul & Mary, and Oscar Brand were part of my musical education. I only saw Dylan a couple of times — both in this century — so, for me, this extremely useful volume puts a period into perspective. Its detail and exhaustive research is combined with a writing style that makes it both persuasive and highly readable. I supplemented my reading by listening extensively to Dylan’s recorded work up to 1965 on Spotify. I read Dylan Goes Electric as an electronic galley provided by the publisher through Edelweiss on my Kindle App.