It is likely that the Tousled Troubadour had a pang of regret when he kicked Pete Seeger in the pants that summer night in 1965. Mike Bloomfield probably didn’t have any pangs and ol’ Pete Yarrow was just trying to get the mix right at the dawn of outdoor festival electric music amplification.
But there it was -- not actually especially a big deal -- dog bites man as it were. Dylan had been --- was always going to be --- electric. Or, “Electric!” But the Boomer generation just has to find ways to re-celebrate itself -- to mark every anniversary of some slightly consequential event as another “epochal change” for which they can all cozily take credit -- sit back and imagine another concert as, meaningful, man… you had to be there. Fifty years ago. My God honey, can you believe it.
So we have this addition to the canon, Elijah Wald’s “Dylan Goes Electric!” Timed for the fiftieth anniversary of the fateful Newport Folk Festival concert. And welcome it is -- actually -- to those of us tireless completists shuddering to think there might have been something we missed from all those previous books.
But I am going to say -- Wald’s insight here has everything going for it. Take this one and leave the rest. This book is very well written and entertaining. It maintains a kind of internal nudge-nudge-wink-wink -- it doesn’t take itself too seriously -- even with all the serious musicology and solid foundational knowledge. What the hell people? Sure Seeger took his beating kind of hard, as well he should, but his part of the 1960s was closing. As the book very cogently points out, the Beatles killed folk music as a popular trend the day they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in ‘64. Seeger was already a part of the past.
By 1965 the folkie craze -- with its own huge internal contradictions -- had blown itself out. Those endless battles over who was or wasn’t authentic, true -- those arguments keep on, but even by 1965 people had stopped caring. Well... you know the Kingston Trio sucked because they weren’t Muddy Waters -- Joan Baez’s voice was too pretty to be any good. Dude, the real blues is played by … well…. fill-in-the-blanks. There was no end to the argument. Still isn’t, really, but Dylan was already headed…. out.
This book does take all that folk music history and its innumerable antecedents and offshoots seriously as the foundation for what came later. Wald’s musical knowledge is enlightening but gets tedious at times -- the discussion of early influences becomes bewildering as endless lists of groups and individuals clog up the pages, repetitive and at times lacking context -- it’s like, “Odetta. Yes. I get it. Enough Odetta.” There are paragraphs with twenty, twenty-five names in lists. OK maybe Elvis twice in the same paragraph but y’know, understood.
Clancy brothers, Son House -- it seems everyone was always proving their bona fides with their influences. Dylan nothing left to prove in that department. It was understood. They came before. Still relevant, but man, what’s next? And he was interested in making money for the work he did. Pay me. Why not?
He ain’t gonna work on Seeger’s Farm no more.”She’s sixty-eight but she says she’s twenty-four.” Wow -- that had to have hurt. Pete Seeger understood -- Bob Dylan loved the guy, but he was kicking him in the balls anyway. And Bob had Mike Bloomfield up there on stage with him. Mike was a blues guy -- but from Chicago. They had gotten past all that Delta Orthodoxy a long time ago. Loud, dirty, and fast. Fuck all that twee “Tom Dooley” shit. “Folk” was most definitely over.
Bob Dylan never turned his back on the folk music genre -- but the clear point is that he never got in line with the politics, the orthodoxy, the protest march program -- the “here’s how you do it. We link arms and live poor, we hate LBJ and we love Che Guevara.” That was a box Bob Dylan was never going to be put into -- he could write “Masters of War,” but he could also write “Maggie’s Farm” and “Like a Rolling Stone,” and of course, “Positively Fourth Street,” which cut both ways with a vengeance.
Wald’s book has some fine details on the early management, press relations and label battles for these artists. The descriptions of the early Newport Folk Festivals, the workshops and lineups, the crowd scenes are vivid and telling. There was blueprint being made that Seeger and George Wein and others established that is a huge industry fifty years later. It was as much trade show as music festival. They invented that.
One highlight of the festival came late Saturday night -- the real throwdown. Wald tells the story in his understated but very funny way. Alan Lomax the purist gave his hedging and hawing intro to the Butterfield Blues Band saying, well these guys are white, didja notice, but they have some credibility in Chicago and whatever… basically saying ‘these guys are posers’ … and their manager Albert Grossman said something inappropriate to Lomax, complaining about Lomax’s intro and they went at it right there.
They were on the ground throwing punches much to the delight of the assembled musicians who liked where Lomax was coming from -- but he didn’t pay the bills by a long shot. Grossman was defending their right to make a dollar -- and no matter what Pete Seeger might have said -- a buck is a buck.
This book does not short the momentous moment itself. Sunday night’s main event. The available records of Dylan’s electric appearance in July of 1965 are given the second-by-second treatment of the Zapruder Film. The coughs, pops and feedback zzzaps are detailed -- attempts are made to lip-read unheard comments seen in the background of the filmed footage. Attitudes and facial expressions are interpreted -- every pause from the stage fraught with meaning -- desperate as the world turns on its its axis and nothing will ever again be the same -- he’s playing a Strat for God’s sake. The instrument of the devil himself.
Has Bob Dylan sold out? The poet of the downtrodden, the last true voice is the wilderness crying out for truth and freedom -- is he just another “Rock” star cashing in? Scum? Like those godawful Beatles? Sorry Pops. The short answer is that you are asking the wrong question. The old orthodoxies are what is being questioned here. The old assumptions. Sure there are good guys and bad guys but the lines aren’t as clear as you might like and you don’t get to decide what they are. Seeger was a great guy but just a part of the past -- a good and important past -- but we can only sing “If I Had a Hammer” and “This Land is Your Land” so many times.
For those of us who might try to cast the whole legend of the ‘65 Newport Jazz and Folk Festival into a well deserved grave Mr. Wald comes out strong with a twenty page exegesis on why it was what everybody says it was. It wasn’t just another show. It actually was an epochal moment after all. The Visigoths had the run of the temple. And good luck getting them out.
And this is the genius of Dylan’s work. It is not over. It never will be over. Mama may well be in that basement mixing up the medicine… what Wald makes clear if you keep reading is that all BD did was put a flashlight on the path. And he very clearly compares Dylan’s contribution to our consciousness to Aeschylus and Plato and the rest of those cats. Serious dudes, no matter what their haircuts….
Really, Bob could not have made it any plainer -- when they keep asking what do you mean by this or that lyric -- he just tells them -- the words of the songs are clear:
Well, I try my best
To be just like I am
But everybody wants you
To be just like them
They say sing while you slave and I just get bored