NEWPORT, R.I. – It was a watershed event in popular music: Bob Dylan, folk music’s young minstrel, taking the stage with an electric guitar slung over his shoulder.
To the die-hard folkies at Newport on July 25, 1965, it was an outrage.
Thirty-seven years later, Dylan is coming back, headlining Saturday’s program at the Apple & Eve Newport Folk Festival.
His long-awaited return stirs memories of the day when he “plugged in,” was booed mercilessly, by most accounts, and in the process knocked down barriers between folk and rocthe early ’60s and was championed by artists like Pete Seeger and Joan Baez.
Newport was the movement’s Mecca.
“If you wanted to get the attention of the folk music hierarchy, you did it at Newport,” says biographer Michael Gray, author of “Song & Dance Man III: The Art of Bob Dylan.”
Up to that point, a musical Mason-Dixon line had divided folk and rock.
“Folk was something that the intelligentsia embraced,” Riley says. “It had this air of pretension and exclusivity.”
Rock was younger and dirtier. To folkies, the hip-swinging antics of Elvis Presley embodied rock ’n’ roll. The televised swooning of Beatles fans didn’t help.
“These people looked on rock ’n’ roll as real kids’ stuff,” Riley says.
By the mid-’60s, Dylan was being called the “voice of his generation.” His poignant lyrics became the soundtrack to the civil rights movement, and he gave voice to rising anti-war sentiment over Vietnam.
Dylan had begun to branch out musically as early as 1964. His third album, “Another Side of Bob Dylan,” contained few songs with political overtones; many were love songs.
“He was already starting to make the folk music establishment uneasy,” says Gray.
Still, no one seemed prepared for Dylan to walk onstage toting a Fender guitar, accompanied by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. They tore into a raucous version of “Maggie’s Farm,” and the crowd was stunned.
Some say the booing that followed was for Dylan, while others claim it was really over the poor sound quality.
White says his animosity was directed squarely at Dylan.
“There has been a lot of revisionist history,” he says. “I know I booed because I was really upset and I felt betrayed. I think the majority of people who were there felt the same way.”
According to some accounts, Pete Seeger had to be physically restrained from using an ax to cut the power cable.
Dylan played just three songs and left the stage to an avalanche of catcalls.
A few minutes later, he returned, this time alone with an acoustic guitar and harmonica. He played two songs: “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” the latter a fitting requiem for his career as a folksinger.