“Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night That Split the Sixties”
There are few musical artists who have continually challenged listeners while managing to remain influential without losing their fan base. The iconic David Bowie is one such artist, constantly reinventing his public and musical persona throughout his landmark career. Bob Dylan is another performer who has never been satisfied following the yellow brick road. For more than fifty years, we have seen him morph from a celebrated folksinger into a rock star, then a artist pondering the many aspects of life, all the while turning even his best-known songs inside-out as he searched for new meanings while refusing too stand pat.
Author Elijah Wald has written an in-depth study of Dylan’s first major break with what had come before. After four albums that established the songwriter as the leading light of folk revival, Dylan was beginning to explore other musical approaches. Released early in 1965, Bringing It All Back Home had a number of rocking tracks like “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Maggie’s Farm” mixed in with the gentle sounds of “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “It’s all Over Now, Baby Blue”. It wasn’t the sound espoused by the leading lights of the folk revival, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and the best-selling trio, Peter, Paul & Mary.
Seeger’s social consciousness definitely made an impact on Dylan’s songwriting, as did the emotional honesty of singer Johnny Ray. Other artists that caught his ear included Leadbelly, Josh White, and Odetta. The author cites one passage that shows the influence of blues artists on Dylan’s musical universe. “Late at night I used to listen to Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed, and Howlin’ Wolf blastin’ in from Shreveport. It was a radio show that lasted all night long……Listened to all those songs, then tried to figure them out.”
Dylan was a star of the annual Newport Folk Festival, started in 1959 by promoter George Wein as an offshoot of his Newport Jazz festival. Over several days, he presented a variety of performers in afternoon and evening concerts as well as workshops on musical styles and instrumental instruction. Some of the more popular workshops drew audiences numbering several thousand people. Workshops that Dylan participated in drew crowds in excess of fifteen thousand attendees. Wald comments, “..when he arrived at Newport in July 1963 his songs were far better known than he was”. Two years later, Dylan had ventured beyond the confines of New York City as his acclaim grew. Two years later, he was the performer that virtually everyone wanted to hear.
Wald does an outstanding job of setting the stage for a epochal concert that marked the beginning of the decline of the folk movement while exposing Dylan’s adventurous nature. Having already recorded tracks for his Highway 61 Revisited project that utilized guitarist Michael Bloomfield, Dylan had moved beyond the confines of the music that had sparked his rise to fame. The world just didn’t know it yet. Intertwining the history of the festival with the singer’s rise to stardom, the author expertly leads readers to the that fateful evening in 1965.
The Paul Butterfield Blues Band was also on the bill for the festival. With all of the great blues bands in Chicago, their selection seemed odd, even taking in to consideration that the band was integrated, with Butterfield, Bloomfield, and guitarist Elvin Bishop accompanied by the African-American rhythm section of Jerome Arnold on bass and Sam Lay on drums. They also played the blues with plenty of electrified attitude born in the tough West and Southside clubs. The festival had featured other electrified bands like the Chambers Brothers, but none had the in-your-face swagger of the Butterfield Band.
At some point during the weekend, Dylan made the fateful decision to enlist Bloomfield, Arnold, and Lay to back him for his Sunday concert. Adding Al Kooper on keyboards, the band had a hasty rehearsal Saturday night. Butterfield lead the band through an opening set followed by the typical variety of folk artists. Once Dylan’s turn arrives, the band tears into “Maggie’s Farm,” and never looks back. The impact was immediate. Some listeners embraced the new approach while others were horrified that their hero had abandoned the cause. Wald does his best to separate fact from fiction as to what actually transpired that evening, including a long-standing fable about Pete Seeger wanting to take an ax to the cables running from the soundboard to the stage to end the violent sonic intrusion into his world of genteel sounds.
It is enthralling tale about a pivotal moment of musical history. Like the narratives of some of Dylan’s talking blues songs, Wald holds your interest as he expertly describes Dylan’s rise and how the Newport Festival helped to fuel his acclaim before he turned his back to answer the call of a different musical muse. The legacy of the blues is a constant thread throughout the story-line, guaranteeing that many blues fans will find plenty to enjoy in this outstanding book.