The myth of Newport '65:
It wasn't Bob Dylan they were booing
by Bruce Jackson
Bob Dylan performed at the Newport Folk Festival this August 3 and apparently it went very well. All the articles I've read and reports I've heard on radio and seen on TV say there was none of the angry booing that so famously accompanied his 1965 performance, when he appeared on stage with members of Paul Butterfield's blues band at the Sunday night closing concert.
The July 25, 1965, audience, the story goes, was driven to rage because their acoustic guitar troubadour had betrayed them by going electric and plugging in. The booing was so loud that, after the first three electric songs, Dylan dismissed the band and finished the set with his acoustic guitar.
There's a host of other associated narratives about goings-on in the wings: Pete Seeger and other Newport board directors were so repulsed and enraged they struggled to kill the electric power; Pete was frenetically looking for an axe to chop the major power line; people were yelling, screaming, crying, beating breasts, rending garments. Griel Marcus tells some of those stories really well at the beginning of his 1998 Dylan book, Invisible Republic.
Great stories. But not one of them is true.
I was one of the directors of the Newport Folk Festival and I was in the wings during Dylan's Saturday night performance. Every time I heard those stories retold, I'd say, to whoever was talking,"That's not how I remember it. Nobody made a move for the power. Nobody took a swing at the sound man. It wasn't Dylan the audience was booing."
After Dylan's August 3, 2002, concert occasioned all those retellings of the Legends of 1965, I decided to check both the legend and my memory: I took down the original tapes made from the stage microphones during that performance. (I have in my office at UB all of the Newport board's audiotapes, save some that Peter Yarrow borrowed and, to my knowledge, never returned, and some that were made for us by a Providence recording company that shortly thereafter went belly-up and disappeared, along with our half-inch four-track master tapes.)
The entire event, from the beginning of Peter Yarrow's introduction to the beginning of Peter's introduction of the next performer, takes 37 minutes. You can hear the audience very clearly throughout. Yarrow's talk is clear, the musician's performances are clear, the audience's responses are clear. No doubt the sound of the people in the front of that great open-air theater come through more loudly than people far in the back, but there's no reason to assume that they didn't cheer and boo the same things.
This is what is on the tape, what people on stage, in the wings, and throughout most of the audience heard:
YARROW: One, two. Can I have some volume on this microphone? Hello. One, two. Ladies and gentlemen, at this time there's a little microphone setup to be done. Cousin Emmy's a gas, right?
There's someone that's coming on to the program now, as a matter of fact, the entire program tonight was designed to be a whole group of small performances. You know I will be performing later with the group that I'm a part of, you know. [Yarrow was a member of a pop-folk group named Peter, Paul & Mary.]
And we are all limited in the time that we can be on stage for a very specific reason. The concept of the program tonight is to make a program of many, many different points of view that are together and yet without the huge expanse of the performing of any group. We will be very limited in time and so will each person who comes up. The person who's coming up now
[a single note from each string of an electric guitar struck by someone apparently checking the tuning]
Please don't play right now, gentlemen, for this second. Thank you.
[three more guitar notes]
The person who's coming up now is a person who has in a sense
[two brief bursts of feedback hum]
changed the face of folk music to the large American public because he has brought to it a point of view of a poet. Ladies and gentlemen, the person that's going to come up now
[Yarrow pauses a long time, drawing it out; a few hoots at the pause from the audience]
has a limited amount of time
[very loud booing and yelling, shouts of "No, no, no"]
his name is Bob [pause] Dylan
[enthusiastic and sustained cheering and applause from the audience that had watched the electric band set up and which was now watching Dylan plug in his own electric guitar]
[a minute or so of noises of things being moved around, levels checked, voices talking about where to set things. No hoots, jeers, calls, or yells from the audience.Minutes 0:00—7.32 on the tape]
DYLAN AND GROUP: "Maggie's Farm,"
[applause, retuning, a voice says "Ready?" a little more tuning, Dylan says "Okay." 7:32—8:25]
DYLAN AND GROUP: "Rolling Stone" 8:25—14:19
[applause, returning, murmur of musician's voice, 14:19—15:03]
DYLAN AND GROUP: "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, it Takes a Train to Cry," 15:03—18:26
[applause, musician's voices saying "Let's go, man, let's go."Sounds of movement, which I take to be Dylan and the band moving off the stage, followed by audience yelling "No, no, no." 18:26—18:44]
YARROW: Bobby was
Yes, he will do another tune, I'm sure. We'll call him back. Would you like Bobby to sing another song? I don't know where he is.
[huge applause, happy yelling. "Yes, yes, yes."]
Listen, it's the fault of the, he was told that he could only do a certain period of time.
Bobby, can you do another song, please? He's going to get his axe.
[audience chants: "We want Dylan, we want Dylan."]
[audience continues chanting: "We want Dylan. We want Dylan."]
He's going to get an acoustic guitar.
[audience continues chanting at the same level: "We want Dylan. We want Dylan."]
Bobby's coming out now. Yes, I understand, that's okay. We want Bobby, and we do. The time problem has meant that he could only do these few songs. He'll be out as soon as he gets his acoustic guitar.
[audience continues chanting: "We want Dylan. We want Dylan." Then bursts into enthusiastic applause. 18:44—20:26]
[bit of microphone hum, harmonica testing, Dylan says "Peter, get" then a few words I can't make out. Tunes guitar. Dylan says, "You got another one?" A bit more tuning, mumbled conversation, occasional sounds from the audience 20:52—22:42]
DYLAN: "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" 22:42—27:37
[applause 27:37—28:32, someone in the audience yells "Tambourine, Bobby." Someone else yells, "Tambourine Man." Dylan says, "Okay, I'll do that." Tunes, fusses. Dylan says, "All right." 29:13]
DYLAN: "Mister Tambourine Man," 29:13—35:29
[applause. Dylan says "Thank you very much." Audience calls "More, more." 35:29—35:40]
YARROW: Bob Dylan, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you, Bob. Thank you. The poet, Bob Dylan. Thank you, Bob. [audience continues applauding through this.] One, two. One, two. Thank you, Bob. Ladies and gentlemen, the next group that's coming up
[audience: "No! Bob!" Boos. Rhythmic clapping.]
is the group from which all this music started. You know the tradition of blues in our country originally came from the African tradition and the African tradition
[boos and rhythmic clapping continue]
Ladies and gentlemen, Bob can't come back. The African tradition, when it was brought over originally, was brought over into the deep South, and the music became, to a large extent
[boos and yells continue]
Ladies and gentlemen, please be considerate of Bobby. He can't come back. Please don't make it more difficult than it is. (35:40—37:04)
That's what is on the tape made on stage at Newport, Rhode Island, on the night of July 25, 1965.
Three things stand out:
First, you can hear a lot of individual things yelled by the audience and the general responses of the audience.
Second, all the booing you can hear from the stage is in response to things Peter Yarrow said, not to things Bob Dylan did.
Third, it was Peter Yarrow who first started drawing attention to what guitar Dylan was using. He twice said that he was coming back with an acoustic guitar, and he stressed it each time. I remember wondering at the time why Peter was making such a big deal of what instrument Dylan was going to use.
I've heard people say that Dylan himself gave proof of how upset he was at the boos when he came back to do those encores with that acoustic guitar rather than two more electric songs with the Butterfield group. Nonsense: Dylan and the blues band did three songs together because that was all the songs they'd prepared to perform together. They hadn't prepared more because they'd been told beforehand by us Newport board members that three songs was all they'd be allowed to do.
I know that at some subsequent performances Dylan's electric guitar was indeed booed by people in the audience. But I've never known if those boos were from people who were really outraged and affronted at the electric power or people who read some of the first renderings of the Legend of Newport '65 and thought that was the way they were supposed to behave to be cool. After all, by the end of that summer everybody knew Dylan had gone electric, so why go to a concert if you knew beforehand that you were going to be unhappy and your ears were going to hurt? Maybe to have a good time, screaming and yelling, the way kids do.
After listening to the original recording, I can't help but wonder if that whole short period of public rage at Bob Dylan's electric guitar wasn't just one more passing fad manufactured out of some warped stories that came out of a performance that just who was really there—at the time, if not in the reconstructions of memory—thought was pretty damned fine.
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