As switches were flipped and the audience started to stir, the MC — Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary — moved swiftly to the microphone. ”It gives me great pleasure to introduce,” he said, ”Mr. Bob Dylan!” The spotlights flared. Dylan roared, ”Let’s go!” And, backed by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, he ripped into ”Maggie’s Farm,” followed by ”Like a Rolling Stone” and ”It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.” While this magic erupted on stage, the crowd — railing at heresy or reeling in ecstasy or neither or both, depending on how you untangle the eve’s Rashomon narrative — was going crazy. Such are the facts of Dylan going electric at Rhode Island’s Newport Folk Festival on July 25, 1965.
Here was a seminal moment: The folk poet famous for such protest anthems as ”I Shall Be Free” and ”The Times They Are a-Changin”’ twisted the ideals of Woody Guthrie into amped-up psychedelia right there in the sanctum sanctorum of the grassroots movement, and ”Maggie’s Farm” itself played like a rollicking kiss-off: ”I try my best to be just like I am/ But everybody wants you to be just like them.” But often lost in the examinations of what the show meant for Dylan — the analyses of who booed and the mythic tales of how the singer-songwriter subsequently ascended to the pop pantheon with the albums Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde — is the consideration of exactly what the moment meant for folk.
”The disturbance,” says Yarrow, who was also on the festival’s board of directors, ”was a reflection of how profoundly important folk music was to the people there. It was not simply music of entertainment, and this was not just a discussion about style…. One of those premises at the rock bed of what folk music was about was the hands-on exchange of music with very little interference. You could hear the voice, feel the fingers on the strings. It wasn’t virtual. Going electric at [that] point was perceived as an abandonment of not a kind of music but a kind of human connection.” What Yarrow calls ”the incident when Bobby went rock” was a startling reconsideration of a whole way of life.
Such fearlessness was — and still is — typical of Dylan’s force. As Yarrow puts it, ”Far from courting his audience, [Dylan] was always challenging himself, and the audience, to rediscover what it was that could be shared through music.” Having forsaken the constraints of the farm, Dylan had begun to lead larger crowds to stranger, more beautiful pastures — and rock would never be the same.
Time Capsule: July 25, 1965
At the movies, Jane Fonda and future Oscar winner Lee Marvin team up in the Western parody Cat Ballou. On television, Soupy Sales, Gerry and the Pacemakers, and Maurice Chevalier are among the guests on tonight’s The Ed Sullivan Show. In music, the Rolling Stones’ signature single ”(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” is a chart-topper for the third consecutive week. And in the news, as officials report that a U.S. jet fighter may have been destroyed by a missile near Hanoi, President Johnson tells Newsweek ”we cannot just get out” of Vietnam.