Talking with Elijah Wald about His Book, “Dylan Goes Electric!”
By now, the story is familiar: angry folk music purists were incensed at Bob Dylan, whom they had begun to revere as an eccentric, but ingenious, songwriter. Like a Messianic figure, he had come out of nowhere to New York City, assuming the mantle of a prophet (not that he ever explicitly accepted it), whose messages of love and justice cascaded from his guitar. When he took the stage at the Newport Folk Festival on July 25, 1965, Dylan returned to his rock and roll roots, strapped on his electric guitar – backed by Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – and swung ferociously into “Like a Rolling Stone.” As the legend goes, fans booed, and Pete Seeger asked where he could grab an axe so he could cut the power to the stage.
In Dylan Goes Electric!: Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night that Split the Sixties (Dey St./Harper), Grammy-award-winning music historian Elijah Wald tells a riveting tale of a world poised on the brink of change, a new direction ushered in by the strains of rock music. Dylan’s decision to “go electric” on that summer night in 1965 was not so much, Wald reminds us, about the betrayal of the folk music community and its traditions as it was about the social, cultural, and political changes that were “blowin’ in the wind” and the refusal to go back down to Maggie’s farm anymore. As Wald so deftly writes, “Dylan at Newport … is important because he took the folk world’s standards and most of its audience with him … Dylan had dragged folk, screaming, into pop.” (Though many folk fans thought that he had dragged pop into folk.) “It was the iconic moment of intersection,” he observes, “when rock emerged, separate from rock ‘n’ roll, and replaced folk as the serious, intelligent voice of a generation.”
But the genius of Wald’s book – so different than other accounts of this now iconic event – is that he starts not with Dylan but with Pete Seeger. As he points out, Seeger and his wife, Toshi, had conceived of this festival where less established folk musicians could come and sit in workshops with more established musicians. In the very best sense, this was music for folks – a community of like-minded players who shared intimate musical moments with one another while swapping chords and lyrics. Into this world strode Dylan, a songwriter already recognized for his inventive take on folk music. As Wald points out through his careful, detailed, and thorough probing of films, tapes, newspaper articles, and fans’ journals: the night he delivered a raucous rendition of “Like a Rolling Stone” very simply divided the crowd into those who were with Dylan and those who weren’t.
Wald concludes his tale with an unforgettable and electrifying image of Dylan and the ways that this fraught evening in Newport altered culture: “The Dylan who presided over what most of us remember as ‘the sixties – the Vietnam era, the campus riots, the summer of love, the hippies, the drug culture, the Weathermen – was truly a Zeitgeist, the ghost of a sacrificial Dylan who stood before the elders in the temple of folk music and was condemned, scourged as he carried his electric cross up the Gethsemane of his yearlong tour, and finally died so that rock could be redeemed.”
I caught up with Wald by phone and chatted with him about his new book.
Henry Carrigan: What prompted you to write this book now?
Elijah Wald: People have always been fascinated with this moment, and the 50th anniversary of the event was coming, and that’s always a good hook. This was my moment to be the folk scene guy. And I thought this was going to be a pretty quick book to write, too, since there’s so much information out there on Dylan and on this night at Newport.
How long did it take you to write the book?
I had the idea in February 2014, and my ideal was to get the book out in time for the 50th anniversary. I’ve never immersed myself like this before in a project.
And you were able to keep to your schedule?
Well, once I started I realized that it might not be such a quick book to write after all, I got fascinated by the early Dylan. I expected to find him singing Woody Guthrie songs on all those early tapes, but instead he’s singing blues and R&B. He talks on those tapes about singing Odetta’s songs, and he might have sung one or two, but he never mentions Leon Bibb [the Kentucky-born singer of spirituals and blues]. Dylan’s singing more of Bibb’s songs than Odetta’s or Woody Guthrie’s songs on those early tapes. I had bought into the idea that Dylan played rock and roll in high school but came to New York City to be a folkie. But my model for doing research and writing is always “it’s more complicated than that,” and part of the fun of the project was getting to know how much more there really was to this story, and to Dylan himself.
There’s so much legend surrounding this night at Newport; by now it’s encrusted in legend. How did you peel away the layers of legend that have accumulated around the moment?
You know, there are the tapes and films of the events, some of them not so great because you can’t always hear or see what’s happening. I read the reviews that people wrote at the time. The Newport and Providence newspapers covered the festival day-by-day, not just the acts on the main stage but also the workshops and also humorous incidents that occurred from time to time at the festival. I took to Facebook and just asked folks who might have been there to get in touch with me with their recollections, or if they knew folks who had been there to have those folks get in touch with me.
Then I found the Holy Grail. I thought to myself, “there’s gotta be some eighteen-year-old girl who kept a journal during the festival,” and I mentioned this to a friend of mine, who told me he knew a girl who had done that. I contacted her and she shared her journal with me. Sure enough, she had written the whole thing up and she had tacked photos, tickets, and other memorabilia in the pages.
Then there were the fans I hoped existed: they loved Peter, Paul, and Mary and Joan Baez. They knew Dylan not through his own music, but through these acts and their versions of Dylan’s songs. It wasn’t the traditionalists who were upset when Dylan went electric; it was the people who thought he wrote these pretty songs for Peter, Paul, and Mary.
What did you learn about Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and Newport Folk 1965?
I had no idea that doing Newport the way it was done was Pete and Toshi’s idea. It’s absolutely unavoidable to see how important Pete Seeger was to the identity of Newport. What Seeger did wasn’t on record. What was great about him is not preserved on record. For Pete Seeger and Newport, it was all about that weekend. Seeger’s dream: now that there’s a commercial folk boom, let’s subsidize a way to bring these folks in the audience – all of whom are carrying guitars or other instruments around – together with these more established acts. Seeger recognized that intimacy is a value, and that professionalism had no place in folk music or at the festival. For Seeger the word professional is a compliment, not a description. Folk music is music that people make for themselves in their own communities. Now, what Dylan was profoundly not was someone interested in intimacy and just sitting there playing 50 feet away from you.
Were you disappointed by anything you discovered about the night in question or the musicians?
I’m not sure it’s disappointment so much about Newport or Dylan or anyone else, but I’m disappointed by the ways that people often read music history. They don’t understand the difference between a critic and a music historian. I’m not a critic evaluating the events or music of July 25, 1965, as good or bad, but I’m a music historian trying to understand all the reactions to that night and set Dylan’s electric set in a broad cultural context.
What will readers be surprised to learn from your book?
Well, I don’t know what they might be expecting, but they might wonder why the whole first chapter is about Pete Seeger. This very clearly says to readers that this isn’t just a Dylan book. It’s easy for Dylan to become the center of the universe, especially with all the Dylan books that have been published the past few years. In the period I’m writing about, Pete Seeger was the center of this universe.
What themes do you hope readers take away from your book?
This was the night that split the ’60s. What we call the ’60s happens after 1965. Before then, folks lived in a world where rock and roll was dumb teenage music. Teenagers loved doo-wop, but even people who loved Little Richard didn’t expect to be listening to him as grownups. Dylan took the vast majority of the folk world into rock, and so rock assumed the mantle of the music that intelligent college students listened to and liked. In other words, this was music that people would still be listening to when they became grownups.
I also hope people will see just how important this night became for Dylan and his view of himself. For him, playing “Like a Rolling Stone” electric was just more exciting for him. He was used to getting booed. It happened when he played in his high school orchestra. But what’s really striking is the extent to which Dylan changed after this night. He became distant. That Dylan never existed before that night, and suddenly the playful, crown prince of the days before Newport was gone.