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55 years ago, Bob Dylan changed the Newport Folk Festival forever

Bob Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival on July 25, 1965. From "Dylan Goes Electric! Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night That Split the Sixties" by Elijah Wald.Diana Davies

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The Newport Folk Festival was supposed to take place this week, but it’s another one of those marquee summer events in Rhode Island that has fallen victim to the coronavirus. The Jazz Festival is also canceled this year.

But never fear, let’s hop in our DeLorean, fire up the flux capacitor, and flash back 55 years to the most infamous moment in the history of the Folk Festival: The night Bob Dylan performed with an electric guitar, and depending on who you ask, was booed off the stage after three songs.

Considering that this happened 21 years before I was born and my taste in music has mostly been shaped by Eminem, I reached out to music historian Elijah Wald to help us understand the significance of Dylan in Newport. Wald is the author of “Dylan Goes Electric! Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night that Split the Sixties,” the definitive book about the event.

As Wald tells it, the Newport Folk Festival was never designed to be a showcase for professional performers, and that’s what made it special. It was the intimacy that fans loved, and even though Dylan was already famous when he performed in Newport the year before, he was their star, not the mainstream’s star.


But by the time he appeared on stage in 1965, he had the No. 1 song in the world, and “Newport is suddenly full of frat boys who want to hear rock-and-roll,” Wald said. When he decided to use an electric guitar for his performance – an idea posed by his manager – his traditional supporters freaked out.

”These people knew him before he was a star,” Wald said. “To them, he was selling out and trying to be The Beatles.”

The truth is more complicated than that, as Wald explains in his book. Dylan had experimented with electric when he was in high school, and he was dead set on “making music 100 percent on his own terms.”

Wald also explained that there were just as many people who cheered Dylan that night as booed him, but the performance itself was flawed. Dylan has always maintained that he was booed off stage, adding to the legend of Newport.

You should read Wald’s book to dive deep into the story, but those who believe Dylan sold out have it wrong.

”Dylan was exactly the same the day after Newport as he was the day before,” Wald said.


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