On This Day In Music History: Dylan Goes Electric At Newport!!!

When Bob Dylan awoke on Sunday, July 25, 1965, he was on top of the world of Folk music. In the three years and four months since his first album was released, he had risen to living legend/voice of his generation/superstar status. Some of his original songs had become anthems of the on-going civil rights movement and his songwriting as a whole had inspired countless singer/guitarists to try their hand at coming up with their own songs. Even John Lennon saw Dylan’s work as a motivation to go beyond the subject of teenage love and write songs that expressed deeper and more personnal feelings.

Dylan also awoke in the midst of the Newport Folk Festival in Newport, RI. Then in it’s seventh year, the music festival had become the showcase for all things Folk in America, and,  performing for his third year in a row, Dylan was the star of the show.

The day before, on Saturday, July 24, he had played at an afternoon workshop, performing solo, just his acoustic guitar, harmonica and vocals. But on this day, Sunday, he had other plans.

Behind the scenes of the Folk Festival, he had put a band together, recruiting members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, who were also playing that weekend, and organist Al Kooper. He wanted to recreate the sound of his brand new single, “Like A Rolling Stone,” during his spot on the festival-ending Sunday night show. The band had rehearsed in a Newport mansion most of Saturday night, learning “Like A Rolling Stone” and two other songs. They were going to be the first electric Rock band to play at Newport and they probably wondered what kind of reaction they were going to get.

That evening, band behind him, Bob stepped up to the mic armed with a sunburst Fender Stratocaster and launched into a loud, very electric “Maggie’s Farm,” a song from his last album. As he sang “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more,” the place went crazy both in the audience and, even more so, back stage. Emotions ranged from shock to anger to bewilderment to surprize to betrayal to excitement to confusion and more.  

Hadn’t they been listening? 

Dylan fourth album, Bringing It All Back Home had come out in March of 1965. Side one of the LP was the “electric” side: seven brand new songs all with Dylan backed-up by electric guitar, bass guitar, drums and sometimes piano and electric organ. The single from the album was the rocking  “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” “Maggie’s Farm” was there and “Love Minus Zero/No Limit.”

That weekend in July, “Like A Rolling Stone” was, in all its electric, full band, Rock glory, quickly climbing the charts and getting airplay on Top-40 radio across the country. Dylan had a hit record. Didn’t the folks at the festival think he might want to play his hit to his adoring fans? Didn’t they think the fans might want to hear him play it?

The last song on the electric side of “Bringing It All Back Home,” is, to me, the most prophetic. “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” starts with acoustic guitar (that Carter-style strum again) and then Dylan singing “I was riding on the Mayflower when I thought I spied some land.” The performance then dissolves into 14 seconds of two people laughing until finally a voice says: “OK, take two.” When the song starts again, the acoustic guitar is joined in the second measure by electric guitar, bass guitar, drums and piano. There is no laughter, only six minutes of rolicking, rolling, joyous music: the sound of a band and its liberated leader having a very good time.

After his three song set with the band that July Sunday evening in Newport, Bob was coaxed back on stage to play two acoustic songs. His last was “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”

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