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Boos at Newport in 1965: Poor sound or Bob Dylan's electric guitar?

July 12, 2012|By Randy Lewis
  • Bob Dylan, right, talks with Pete Seeger backstage at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.
Bob Dylan, right, talks with Pete Seeger backstage at the Newport Folk Festival… (Jim Marshall Photography…)

Nearly half a century after Bob Dylan made history with his revolutionary electrified performance at the Newport Folk Festival, the debate goes on, like a rolling stone: Were the boos and catcalls from the audience directed at him for flaunting the conventions of the folk music world by stepping onstage with a Fender Stratocaster instead of an acoustic guitar, and bringing a rock 'n’ roll band onstage along with him? Or was it because the audio sounded like mud?

It’s long been noted that folk standard bearer Pete Seeger appeared very upset that day, and there are well documented accounts that folklorist Alan Lomax, who was one of the board members for the Newport Folk Fest, was none too happy about the introduction of electric instruments into the mix.

There’s a fascinating account of Lomax and Dylan’s then-manager, Albert Grossman, actually engaging in a fist fight backstage in conjunction with the performance that year by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, a report to be found on a Web page devoted to influential blues guitarist Mike Bloomfield, who died in 1981.

READ: On the trail of Bob Dylan's guitar

Seeger, however, has insisted his wrath wasn’t directed at Dylan, but at the sound system.

“When Bob Dylan switched to an electric guitar at Newport in 1965 I was not upset with him -- I was furious at the sound system,” he said in “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” his 1993 “singalong memoir.” “I wanted to cut the cable. Bob was singing ‘Maggie’s Farm,’ one of his best songs, but you couldn’t understand a word, because of the distortion.”

Hmm. Sounds suspiciously like the same complaint I've received from at least one reader after every Dylan show I’ve reviewed over the last 30 years.

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Whatever motivated the ill-will of onlookers, that performance on July 25, 1965, went down as a watershed moment in pop music history, the day that folk music and rock 'n’ roll were united in a shotgun wedding presided over by the greatest songwriter of the era.

The particulars of Dylan’s Newport Folk Festival performance are back in the news because the guitar he played that day is the subject of the 10th season kickoff episode of PBS’ “History Detectives” on Tuesday. 

The show centers on a guitar purported to be the one he played at the Newport festival -- according to Dawn Peterson, a 43-year-old New Jersey woman who brought a 1964 sunburst Stratocaster to the show’s investigators to see whether they could authenticate the story she got from her late father. The story? That Dylan had left it behind on  the private plane her father flew for him, Peter, Paul &; Mary and members of the Band.

The conclusion of the investigation is that it is indeed the same guitar that set the folk music world on its ear 47 years ago. But in the wake of that pronouncement, Dylan’s attorney issued a statement this week saying, “Bob has possession of the electric guitar he played at The Newport Folk Festival in 1965. He did own several other Stratocaster guitars that were stolen from him around that time, as were some handwritten lyrics. In addition, Bob recalls driving to the Newport Folk Festival, along with two of his friends, not flying.”

In response, show officials put out a statement of their own: “History Detectives stands by its reporting of our story in which we conclude that a contributor to the show is in possession of the Fender Stratocaster played by Bob Dylan at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.

“Based on the evidence provided -- which included close-up color photographs of Mr. Dylan performing at Newport -- the guitar was authenticated by Andy Babiuk of Rochester, New York.  Mr. Babiuk was able to match the wood grain shown in detail on the photographs with the wood grain of our contributor’s guitar. Like a fingerprint, no two wood grains are identical. Mr. Babiuk has previously authenticated numerous guitars including a John Lennon Gretsch 6120 currently on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and a Bob Dylan Hummingbird used by Mr. Dylan at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration.

“History Detectives welcome the opportunity to examine the guitar which is currently in Mr. Dylan’s possession.”

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