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Folk to Rock: When Dylan Went Electric


In this 1963 file photo, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan perform at the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island.

In this 1963 file photo, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan perform at the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island.


Fifty years ago, the well-loved musician Bob Dylan played at the Newport Folk Festival and was widely booed. The audience may have been unhappy but Dylan’s performance helped change the direction of music and culture in the United States.

The mid-1960s were a time of great change. One such place of change was the world of folk music. Music legend Bob Dylan became a symbol of change when he moved from acoustic to electric guitar.

Rock music historian Elijah Wald has written a new book about the change. It is called "Dylan Goes Electric."

"There was a moment in the early sixties where you could look at the Billboard charts and seven of the top 10 albums were folk records. And Joan Baez, Peter Paul and Mary, the Kingston Trio, all had huge, huge, huge number-one records."

And then this happened: The “British Invasion” introduced the world to the Beatles and grew a huge fan base for rock music. That worried many folk musicians, says Elijah Wald.

"In 1964, the Beatles had hit. By the summer of 1965, a lot of people in the folk scene were sort of feeling like their world was threatened."

They hoped that Bob Dylan would come to the rescue. Dylan was a major artist in folk music, a powerful songwriter and unusual singer.

In 1965, Dylan was booked to perform at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island. He had performed at the festival in 1963 and 1964 with folk singer Joan Baez. The crowd was expecting to see a similar show, with a traditional sound like this.

Instead, a new Dylan sound came from the stage.

Bob Dylan had gone electric, and the followers of folk music were not pleased.

“When Dylan went electric, I think one of the issues was the feeling that -- wait a minute, he's gone over to the enemy."

At first the Newport audience was quiet, seemingly in shock. Then, the crowd began to boo.

Folk lovers had looked to Bob Dylan to save their movement from rock and roll. But, author Wald says Dylan felt differently about the music genre.

"Dylan had always liked rock and roll and Dylan didn't think of rock and roll as stupid music."

In fact, Dylan was a Beatles fan. He later said that from the first time he heard the Beatles he knew "they were pointing to the direction where music had to go."

"Honestly, once the Beatles hit, I think the writing was on the wall. But when Dylan went with the Beatles on that one: that was that. That was essentially the end of the folk scene as a huge mainstream pop trend."

Beyond the music, Dylan's performance that night also marked a turn in American culture.

"Before 1965 was really a different world, and it's the '60s of the Civil Rights Movement, and of folk music and of joining arms across the generations and across the races. And after 1965 it's the world of rock…I'm not saying that Dylan created that change, but I do think that the confrontation at Newport happened because it was symbolic of that much larger confrontation, and has been remembered because it really is sort of the moment of rupture where the new '60s emerged."

I’m Caty Weaver.

Eric Felten reported and wrote this story from Washington. Caty Weaver adapted it for VOA Learning English. ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Ashley Thompson was the editor.

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Words in This Story

boo v. to make a sound that shows dislike or disapproval of a performance or action by someone

genren. a particular type or category of literature or art

mainstream adj. largely acceptable and widespread

trend n. a general direction of change: a way of behaving, proceeding, etc. that is developing and becoming more common

confrontationn. a situation in which people, groups, etc., fight, oppose, or challenge each other in an angry way

rupture n. a break, opening or area of damage

emerge v. to rise or appear from a hidden or unknown place or condition: to come out into view

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