Interview: Elijah Wald, Author Of 'Dylan Goes Electric!' It's been 50 years since Bob Dylan strolled on stage at the Newport Folk Festival, plugged in an electric guitar, and infuriated his flock. Historian Elijah Wald says there's much more to the story.
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50 Years Ago, Bob Dylan Electrified A Decade With One Concert

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50 Years Ago, Bob Dylan Electrified A Decade With One Concert

50 Years Ago, Bob Dylan Electrified A Decade With One Concert

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

In the early 1960s, folk music scenes were blossoming all over the country, and the Newport Folk Festival was their confluence.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLOWIN' IN THE WIND")

BOB DYLAN: (Singing) The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind.

RATH: In the middle of the decade, the reigning king was a young Bob Dylan. But on this very day 50 years ago, Bob Dylan did the unthinkable, the unforgivable. He plugged in an electric guitar, and he rocked hard.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAGGIE'S FARM")

DYLAN: (Singing) I ain't going to work on Maggie's farm no more.

RATH: The crowd was stunned. The folk faithful were betrayed by the man they considered the rightful heir to Woody Guthrie. That's the mythology, at least. But without question, that night proved to be the major turning point in music history. Elijah Wald has written a new book about that performance. It's called "Dylan Goes Electric." He says the crowd at Newport '65 might not have been so shocked had they known Dylan's listening habits as a kid in Hibbing, Minn.

ELIJAH WALD: He was an RnB fan. It's interesting. He was actually listening to a record program - it was his favorite program - that was beamed out of Shreveport, La, and that was specializing in, you know, B.B. King, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU CAN'T CATCH ME")

CHUCK BERRY: I bought a brand new airmobile.

WALD: Little Richard, incidentally, was his hero. That was - he pounded piano and shouted like Little Richard and did the falsetto whoops and all of that.

RATH: And you write about Bob Dylan when he arrived in New York, the kind of scene in Greenwich Village. It's almost like he's trying on different personas, like you never know what Bob Dylan might show up.

WALD: Oh, yeah. I mean people who knew Bob Dylan back in Hibbing, Minn., say he was already trying on personas. But you know, that's not very unusual.

RATH: He was young.

WALD: Yeah, exactly. A guitar player, singer, 18, 19, 20 years old - it's very typical that you'll pick up record and sound just like that record for two weeks. And then you pick up another record and sound like that record for a while.

RATH: The folk scene that you write out back then - it's a lot more diverse than I realized, and there are even factions in a way.

WALD: There always was friction on the folk scene between the people who really believed that this music should be done authentically, should be done right and people who just thought, you know, this is fun music. Let's do it however we want. Let's do it in ways that's fun. But there were a lot of people on the purist side who thought the pop-folkies were simply taking great music and turning it into tripe.

RATH: There's a point that you return to in this book a number of times that Bob Dylan - it wasn't like he wanted to lead the folk revolution. He didn't want to lead a movement.

WALD: He wasn't a movement kind of guy. I mean, I'm not going to say he didn't want to be a pop star, but he was not a joiner. He was not good with organizations. There was this feeling that it was all about, we're going to make a movement that's going to change the world. He was the man who had written one of the anthems of the freedom movement and one of the people who was holding it all together, this new youth movement that would change the world. And by 1965, that role was feeling, I think, constricting to him but also frightening to him, you know, the fact that people were looking to him for answers.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOB DYLAN SONG, "LIKE A ROLLING STONE")

WALD: It was a very tricky time right then anyway. That was the weekend that Lyndon Johnson fully committed the United States to Vietnam. The civil rights movement was falling apart. SNCC, which was the group that had brought all of the kids down for the Freedom Summer the previous year, now was throwing the white members out, and the new chant was black power.

You know, that communal feeling of the first half of the '60s was getting harder and harder to feel like that was all going to work and the world was going to be a better place. And Dylan was someone a lot of people were looking to to hold that together. And instead, he comes out there with an electric band, doesn't say a word to them. Dylan was always somebody who'd been very sort of cheerful, friendly, chatting with the audience - doesn't say a word and is playing the loudest music they've ever heard and screaming, how does it feel to be on your own?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIKE A ROLLING STONE")

DYLAN: With no direction home, like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone...

RATH: So you say that the scene was not like, you know, the near riot maybe some people describe it as being or the way that it's been - come down to mythology. How intense was the reaction to it?

WALD: The reaction was very intense. How much booing there was it's hard to say because the fact is, they turned the microphones on stage way down because the band was so loud. So suddenly, you can't hear the crowd during the electric set very much. There are people yelling bring back Cousin Emmy, who was the hillbilly singer who had sung just before him, and I don't like your band and throw away that electric guitar and bring back Pete Seeger; we want the old Dylan. You can also hear people yelling Beatles - play The Beatles - or cancel the rest of the shows; stay all night.

You know, so there was all of this feeling that the folk festival was turning into something else, maybe a pop festival or maybe just, you know, a place where people went to get famous rather than a place where they went to share music. And in order to fight against that, the Newport Festival, carefully, was not giving anyone star treatment. So everyone who played that night was supposed to just play 12 minutes. And they put Dylan on partway through the first half. And he sang three songs, and he left. And that's when the place went completely nuts.

RATH: Beyond the moment itself, that night took on cultural baggage pretty much right away, you know?

WALD: Yeah.

RATH: It was being taken as a defining moment for something. You could argue about what it was. But now we actually have, you know, a nice, tidy 50 years of distance from this - maybe some real perspective. So what did that moment mean for music or for American culture?

WALD: You know, when I called this book "The Night That Split the Sixties," you know, it's very easy to forget that all of the things that we normally think of when we say the word '60s happened after 1965 - I mean, the Vietnam War, the hippies, the drugs. The Beatles had not yet, much less Sergeant Pepper, they hadn't even yet done "Rubber Soul." They were still a fun pop group. And all of that stuff - that's really the break that happens right at this time. And I'm not saying at all that it happened because Dylan went electric, but it's a real good marker for the divide between what had been the first half of the '60s and what was coming.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAGGIE'S FARM")

DYLAN: Well, I tried my best to be just like I am, but everybody wants you to be just like them. They say sing while you slave. I just get bored. I ain't going to work on Maggie's farm no more.

RATH: That's Elijah Wald. He's the author of a new book "Dylan Goes Electric!" Bob Dylan's disruptive electric performance at the Newport Folk Festival happened on this day 50 years ago. Elijah Wald, great speaking with you. Thank you.

WALD: Thank you very much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOB DYLAN SONG, "MAGGIE'S FARM")

RATH: And for Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DYLAN: (Unintelligible).

RATH: All right. Settle down. Follow us on Twitter @NPRWATC. Tomorrow is July 26, a red-letter day for Cuba.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Sixty-two years ago - it seems like yesterday - a band of rebels led by Fidel Castro attacked the military barracks in Santiago de Cuba.

RATH: The rebels were outnumbered and outgunned.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Many of his colleagues were captured, executed at Moncada. Fidel, Raul and a few others escape into the hills.

RATH: How a tactical failure marked the start of the Cuban Revolution. That's on tomorrow's show. Until then, thanks for listening, and have a great night.

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