Express Newspapers/Getty Images
Bob Dylan at a press conference in London.
Bob Dylan at a press conference in London. Express Newspapers/Getty Images
On Sunday, June 25th, 1965, Al Cooper and his wife were ambling the grounds of the Newport Folk Festival, greeting friends and taking in the sounds, something they did every summer.
"And then I was curtailed by Albert Grossman, Dylan's manager. Said, `Bob wanted to see you. Here's some passes and come see us tonight.'"
Just a few weeks before the festival, Cooper had played organ on a song for Bob Dylan's new album, "Highway 61 Revisited."
Backstage at Newport, Dylan asked Cooper if he'd be willing to play with him that night.
"I'd like to get the sound of the album that we just recorded here at Newport, and Mike Bloomfield's here with his band and you're here and I figure between the two of that, we could put something together and, you know, play a few songs.' So I said, `That sounds good.'"
Dylan, a skinny 24-year-old with wild, frizzy hair, took the stage, band in tow. Folk singer Pete Seeger was watching from backstage.
"They took a long time getting the mikes set up, and then he started singing 'Maggie's Farm.' It's a great song, one of his best."
There's some debate over the meaning of what happened next. Musician and radio host Oscar Brand, who was present, says the audience, expecting to see and hear their acoustic folk hero, was surprised to see Dylan holding an electric guitar.
"There was a boo here and a boo there and a number of boos through the audience."
Musician Mike Seeger, who was standing 150 feet from the stage, was among the surprised listeners.
"I had never heard music quite that loud before. It was very, very loud and there wasn't a lot of applause compared to what—the way he was greeted."
Oscar Brand says Dylan didn't even acknowledge the crowd's response.
"He just kept playing and he played for a while with this hostile audience in front of him."
This reaction entered rock mythology as a rejection of Dylan's transformation from an acoustic to an electric artist. But organist Al Cooper believes people booed simply because the sound was so bad. Pete Seeger does, too.
"You couldn't understand the words, the sound was so distorted. And I ran over to the sound person and said, `Clean up that distortion. Nobody can understand the words.' They hollered back, `No! This is the way they want it!' And I said, `If I had an ax, I'd chop the microphone people.' Well, that went down in history as they thought I didn't like his music."
Dylan's second song was "Like a Rolling Stone," a new tune that hadn't yet hit the airwaves.
Dylan had recorded "Like a Rolling Stone" 10 days earlier at a studio in New York City. As usual, he didn't bring arrangements or charts to the recording session. He came in, taught the musicians the song and then they recorded take after take, experimenting with different tempos.
The version of "Like a Rolling Stone" that ultimately got released was six minutes long, almost twice as long as most standard pop songs. That made it difficult for radio disc jockeys to program, but they did. And the song immediately struck a chord with listeners. Bill Flanagan, author of "Written in My Soul," a collection of interviews with songwriters including Bob Dylan, was 12 years old the first time he heard "Like a Rolling Stone."
"I just remember jumping up out of the chair and getting closer and closer to the speaker until I kind of had my head inside the speaker. When he sings, `How does it feel? How does it feel to be on your own like a complete unknown,' it's no longer just pointing the finger at the woman in the song. It's sort of everyone singing along, everyone saying, `Yeah, well, we are on our own. We're out of the house. We're away from our parents' values. And yet somehow we've found this community.' That's kind of what the appeal of the almost tribalism of the '60s was about."
"Like a Rolling Stone" was one of those songs that seems to have come along at just the right time. The lyrics expressed what young Americans were thinking and feeling in 1965 and the sound was also much more in sync with the times than Dylan's acoustic style. John Hammond, the Columbia Records producer who gave Dylan his first contract, welcomed the change, as he said in this 1983 interview.
"I couldn't have applauded Bobby more for going electric, because it was logical. This is—were the sounds of the times, you know, and this is what the kids were looking for. He didn't play very great electric guitar, but he had always good musicians behind him."
Dylan's new hard-rocking sound might have shocked traditionalists, but it wasn't as much of a departure for the musician. He had always liked rock 'n' roll. In high school, he listened to Chuck Berry, Hank Williams and John Lee Hooker, and he played in a number of rock 'n' roll bands before going acoustic. In a 1965 interview with Time magazine, Dylan disavowed the folk singer mantle. The interview showed up in the 1967 documentary "Don't Look Back."
"And I don't think I'm a folk singer," Dylan said. "You'll probably call me a folk singer, but you know, the other people know better, because the people that—you know, they buy my records, listen to me, know that (unintelligible) singing."
Dylan may not have thought himself a folk singer, but he does get credit for ushering in the era of the singer-songwriter. Organist Al Cooper says he was one of the first in his generation to sing his own songs and to focus his lyrics on subjects more serious than falling in love or breaking up.
"It was like all the records up to that time were like sitcoms, and then here came somebody that spoke like a modern-day Shakespeare, and what a difference."
After the first performance of "Like a Rolling Stone" at the Newport Folk Festival, Joni Mitchell declared, `Hallelujah, the American folk song has grown up,' and Bob Dylan willingly took credit for it. In the liner notes to his 1985 collection "Biograph," Bob Dylan says, `Tin Pan Alley is gone. I put an end to it. People can record their own songs now.'