Bob Dylan’s controversial performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, when he appeared for the first time with a loud band complete with distorted electric guitars, is one of the most legendary concerts in the history of music festivals.
Dylan had first come to prominence at Newport in 1963 as a singer and songwriter of stark, earnest songs that combined convincing mimicry of rural acoustic blues and country music with down-to-earth left politics and ambitious wordplay.
His 1965 appearance, in a trendy polka dot shirt, leather jacket, and sunglasses, was greeted as blasphemy by ultra-orthodox folkies who understood Beatles-esque rock music as a threat to the honesty and sincerity of the folk revival, and of the Newport stage in particular.
They booed and jeered. They yelled, “Get rid of the electric guitar.” They shouted, “Where’s Ringo?” Someone said, “Bring back Cousin Emmy” – a reference to an all-but-forgotten opening act. Some people cheered, but what was remarkable was the people booing.
These are some of rock history’s easiest villains: who boos music? Who boos “Like a Rolling Stone”? Taste aside, we side with Dylan as the underdog, the rebel, the punk, and we reject the idea that music has to play by the rules and stay within prescribed bounds: acoustic, not electric; folk, not rock; authentic, not commercial.
But this stance is too easy, and isn’t as purely defensible as it first seems. The people who booed Dylan knew things about festivals that we’ve forgotten and, looking at the state of current folk festival line-ups, could stand to learn from.
One key thing to remember when talking about the Newport 1965 is that at the time he took his rebel stand against the folk establishment, Bob Dylan was not an outsider or an underdog in any real sense. He was a major pop star signed to Columbia Records.
When Dylan hit the stage, “Like a Rolling Stone” was his current single. Sure, it was only at number 91 on the Billboard chart, but it had just been released. Over the next month and a half, it rose to number 76, then number 44, then 26, then 16, then 6, peaking at number 2 in early September, just below “Help!” by the Beatles and just above “California Girls” by the Beach Boys.
This was an incredible feat at the time for a song that was over six minutes long and consisted mostly of angry words. Allen Ginsberg had an excellent point when he said of Dylan that “it was an artistic challenge to see if great art can be done on a jukebox – he proved it can.” Dylan could have truly sold out and written “I Got You Babe,” but instead he essentially invented angry, intelligent pop music, and we’re all richer for it.
But Newport wasn’t about hearing commercial artists play their current releases, however daring. The Newport model depended on stars using their drawing power to get people to come and see other less commercial artists. For the organizers, and for many in the audience, the heart of the festival was those less commercial artists, the ones you couldn’t hear on the radio or find on the Billboard charts.
One of those non-commercial artists on the Newport Stage in 1965 was Cousin Emmy. She was a singer of Appalachian folk songs, an older, grandmotherly figure whose performance style was self-consciously simple and a little silly.
She had been brought to Newport by the New Lost City Ramblers, three bookish New Yorkers who recreated old country music from the 1920s and 30s, and also tracked down old artists, many of whom had stopped performing professionally for years before being contacted, coaxing them out of retirement.
Other folk revivalists had revived the careers of blues performers, the most famous at Newport 1963 being Mississippi John Hurt, whom everyone assumed was dead but was in fact living and, like Cousin Emmy, still a vivacious and sly performer. In the few years after his Newport debut, he made a comfortable living as a professional musician for the first time in his long life.
Cousin Emmy and Mississippi John Hurt both played music that would never trouble the Billboard charts. Cousin Emmy’s toothy cowpoke mug was unlikely to appear in Vogue. They had recorded commercially before the Second World War, but by the time of their Newport performance their style had become anachronistic, their sound rough and jarring to most modern ears.
That’s why they were embraced by the crowds at Newport. No one booed them, because their music was idiosyncratic; even people who listened to folk music had never heard anything like it, or seen it performed in person. The audience went to Newport because they wanted something they couldn’t hear on the radio, and Cousin Emmy delivered.
The furor that Dylan provoked at Newport in 1965 has been caricatured as being about electrification. It’s true that Dylan did appear with not one but two electric guitars. But so did the Chambers Brothers and Lightin’ Hopkins and, in other years, the Staples Singers and Howlin’ Wolf. No one booed them.
Electrification wasn’t the issue. And neither, clearly, was a too narrow definition of what constituted folk music: the festival featured as part of its folk program a lot of blues and gospel singers and even some rock’n’roll acts. All that Newport excluded, in fact, was music that already had a large commercial platform – the music Dylan was making in 1965.
For its time, in fact, Newport was remarkably diverse. The board had a mandate to program music that arose out of a cultural milieu, whether the Appalachians or the Maritimes or the South Side of Chicago, in which the hit parade was marginal.
This meant that a lot of the people who played there had never left their home community and had never performed their music for anyone outside their immediate culture. Some were professional musicians, some had even had successful commercial releases in the recent past, but some were schoolteachers and janitors who had never performed professionally before.
This big-tent approach meant that the music was pretty diverse at Newport, nothing like the narrowness of what we understand now as folk, which is essentially the singer-songwriter genre originated by Dylan – a genre that has historically been very white, with a few important exceptions like Buffy Sainte-Marie, Joan Armatrading, and Richie Havens, and is increasingly male-dominated.
The old folk festival edict, applied to today’s breadth of music available, would make for incredibly diverse bills with broad appeal, encompassing traditional musics from around the world as well as underground hip-hop and even punk, and would only exclude those artists, of whatever marketing category including folk, who have easy access to audiences via the commercial mainstream.
By overwhelmingly booking commercial artists, today’s folk festivals are opting for a model that is less diverse, and that questions the very basis for having folk festivals in the first place.
Look up any folk festival bill today, and you will see a whole lot of Bob Dylans and precious few Cousin Emmys.
Thirty-something males who used to be in punk bands and now sing personal songs with an acoustic guitar (reverse Dylans, technically speaking) are thick on the ground. Performers who play a regional or esoteric style that sounds weird to most people’s ears are disappearing.
Festival bills are dominated by acts that have broad commercial appeal, that get airplay, and that often cross over from rock music. Folk festival bills are all but indistinguishable from rock club bills, and indeed often indistinguishable from one another. The same acts show up again and again in a given festival year, touring from festival to festival.
The point is not to begrudge people trying to make a living playing original music, especially as an independent, or to deny audiences the chance to hear their favourite artists. The point is that there are lots of ways to make money playing original music.
Folk festivals were, at one time, a significant boon to the ability of obscure artists making non-commercial music to support themselves – and for adventuresome fans to encounter new and challenging music that defies commercialization.
Now those artists don’t get booked, and instead artists who are already getting significant exposure on radio, already have significant fan support, and can easily play theatres or bars outside the folk festival circuit, are getting those slots.
This state of affairs is a direct result of our collective siding with Dylan over the booers. Folk festivals need to be protected from the domineering effects of celebrity culture and commercial imperatives. The only way to “Bring back Cousin Emmy,” to make festival bills challenging again, is to hold a space for non-commercial music.
If that requires booing “Like a Rolling Stone” when it’s played in the wrong place at the wrong time, so be it.