The crowd at the Newport Folk Festival was outraged. Bob Dylan, hailed as the savior of modern folk music, had betrayed them, coming onto stage with a rock and roll band and playing his songs ELECTRIC. Electric and loud. The crowd booed and yelled. Backstage it was mayhem and Pete Seeger, the father of the modern folk revival, grabbed a fire axe and attacked the electric cables that powered Dylan's blaring instruments. He raised the axe over his head, this man who sang about having a hammer, and swung it down in a desperate attempt to save the sanctity of the annual gathering.
Well, probably not. That is the more popular account of the events of Saturday July 24th, 1965, and it's probably the most inacurrate. But you can see why it's the most popular.
The reality is a little less exciting, and more than a little murky. We do know one thing for sure: Dylan went electric at that show. He was placed on the line-up between two more traditional folk acts, so it's possible that his loud guitars were jarring to the crowd, but it wasn't entirely unexpected. While Dylan had made the choice to go electric the night before (he pulled in members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band to help out at the last minute), organizers knew what he was up to because the band had been practicing. It's possible that this is where the 'plug getting pulled' story comes from, actually. According to Texas folklorist Mack McCormick, he was the guy who pulled the plug on Dylan during practice:
IN 1965 REVERED FOLKLORIST ALAN Lomax, aware of McCormick's work, asked him to bring a Texas prison gang to the Newport Folk Festival to sing work songs. The Texas attorney general wouldn't permit it, so McCormick found a few ex-cons who wanted to go, including Chopping Charlie Coleman, known throughout the Texas prison system for his strength in the fields with a hoe, and drove them there himself. The singers had never sung together in front of a microphone, much less in front of 20,000 people, and McCormick was anxious to give them a brief onstage run-through. But the previous act wouldn't get offstage: It was Bob Dylan with his first electric band. In a matter of hours, Dylan would offend the folkies with loud rock and roll and change popular music forever, but McCormick didn't care about that: "I was trying to tell Dylan, 'We need the stage!' He continued to ignore me. So I went over to the junction box and pulled out the cords. Then he listened."
So what was Pete Seeger doing? According to Seeger himself he ran to the engineers to get them to fix the horrible sound. He claims that the band was too loud in the mix and that Dylan's lyrics - which he wanted the crowd to hear. One of the songs Dylan played was Like A Rolling Stone, which he had written and recorded just a month before, so maybe Seeger was totally clued in to the profound, culture-shattering impact that song would have.
Or maybe he was worried about his dad. Seeger's brother-in-law says that elderly Charlie Seeger was in the audience and the noise was wreaking havoc on his hearing aid. .
Nobody really knows why the crowd booed. Many think it was about the sound quality, while some agree with Dylan's keyboardist Al Kooper, who thinks it was because Peter Yarrow, who was MCing, told the crowd that Dylan would be doing a short set. Kooper thinks the audience felt ripped off that Dylan - one of the main stars of the event - would only get 15 minutes. Of course there will always be those who believe in the Newport myth, which was already taking on a life of its own in the next few months, culminating in the infamous moment when a fan yelled "JUDAS!" at Dylan on his UK tour and Dylan, being Dylan, replied "I don't believe you, you're a liar."
Whatever the truth, Dylan took it personally. Interviews later indicate that he thought he was being booed for going electric, and in the immediate aftermath he called Pete Seeger's disapproval a "dagger in my heart" and said it sent him out immediately to get a drink. For Dylan, coming to New York City from Minnesota with American roots music in his heart, Seeger was a staggering figure. If Dylan was the leading light of the folk revival in 1965, Seeger was the founder. He had worked with Alan Lomax - one of the most titanic people in the history of American music - in cataloguing and releasing field recordings of 'race' and 'hillbilly' music that would become the backbone of our cultural heritage. He would, with his singing group The Weavers, repopularize folk in the 1950s. And throughout the 60s he would be one of the most important figureheads for social justice, and his songs would become standards. Feeling that Seeger was disappointed could have only stung Dylan in the deepest possible way.
The confusion over the story makes it all so perfectly Dylan - multiple interpretations, especially of the crowd reaction, any of which could be just as true as any other. But it's such an imperfect Pete Seeger story - the idea of that man taking an axe to equipment is so outside of his persona. But the idea of Pete Seeger desperately wanting that crowd to hear Dylan's words... that's the version I like.