The myth of ‘Dylan goes electric’ at Newport explored

The myth surrounding Bob Dylan says that he was booed at the Newport Folk Festival 50 years ago this month when he plugged in an electric guitar to play three songs.

A new book says it’s not true, at least the way the story is told.

Elijah Wald, a musicologist, says the debate in music circles has been nasty on the question for years.

In a profile with WBUR, Wald says the crowd wasn’t so much turned off by the electric, rocky nature of Dylan’s set as it was upset that he wasn’t very good, and Dylan allegedly admits to being “a little drunk.” He also turned his back and ignored the audience while tuning up.

“It was very hard to understand for people who’ve lived, as you and I have, with what Dylan does on stage now,” says Wald. Dylan never talks on stage and hasn’t for years. “But understand how discomfiting that was because Dylan used to kid around, joke and chat with the audience. People were used to him being bouncy and funny and friendly. I think that’s also part of the story, the extent to [which] he was cutting himself off from them and I don’t see how anyone could have felt otherwise.”

One thing it signaled, writes Wald, is that folk music was on the popular descent and rock ‘n’ roll on the popular ascent. “The end of the folk scene was in the air for anyone who was paying attention,” Wald says. “Once the Beatles hit, the writing was on the wall.”

Change was in the wind, turbulence in the air. And that the ‘60s — as we seem to refer to that divisive and rebellious decade — were about to begin.

“We all have confused ‘the 60s’ with the second half of the ‘60s,” Wald says. “It’s so easy to forget that the first half of the ‘60s was just a different universe.”

But Newport also marked the end of Bob Dylan as a political songwriter, the lifeblood of the folk scene at the time.

“The thing that I hadn’t realized until I looked at the numbers,” says Wald, “is he was a political songwriter for maybe a year and a half. It’s a tiny, tiny stretch. By the time people recognized him as a political songwriter he was already past that. By the time ‘The Times, They-Are-A-Changin’ came out, he wasn’t writing that stuff anymore. That startled me as well, how briefly he was doing that.”

But the legend lived on anyway.