"That boy is really destructive"
1965-07-25, Newport Folk Festival, Newport, RI
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"Bobby Dillon came on stage all in motorcycle black, in front of a very bad, very loud, electric r-r band. 16,000 people had come to hear him. He walked off stage after four numbers, no word of which could be understood, to one single hand-clap of applause. The audience sat there terrified and silent. He walked off slumped like a dead man… George Wein shooed him back on stage with an acoustic guitar, then he spent ten horrifying minutes changing guitars, hunting for his old harmonica, tuning up, while 16,000 people watched in horrified fascination… He more or less killed the festival. Pete resigned from the board. That boy is really destructive." - Alan Lomax
"I ran to hide my eyes and ears because I could not bear either the screaming of the crowd nor some of the most destructive music this side of Hell." - Pete Seeger
Has any five-song performance been analyzed as much as Dylan '65? It’s like the musical Zapruder film. There are multiple books about it, and several documentaries too. I don't have anything to say that hasn't been said many times before.
But I do have a question: Why did they boo?
I don't mean, why did people get upset? The various reasons have been endlessly debated. People hated rock and roll and/or it was too loud and/or they couldn't make out the lyrics and/or they could and they weren’t political enough and/or he didn't talk to the audience and/or they were mad he didn't play for longer. Etc.
However, no matter how much I've read about it or listened to the recording, the booing itself remains hard to understated.
If I hated someone's music at a festival, I'd leave the show, go grab a beer, wander elsewhere, or maybe just make snide remarks to my friends (these days "look at my phone" would be a strong contender too). Plenty of ways to ignore unpleasant music. I just can't imagine literally booing. Sure, if someone was actually saying something offensive - spouting neo-Nazi slogans from the stage - but just because I didn't like the music? Why?
And make no mistake, people booed. There is, again, debate about how widespread it was, and the reasons behind it, but no one disputes that some people in the audience, for some reason, sat there booing as loud as they could.
So rather than analyzing Dylan's three electric songs for the ten millionth time, I thought it might be interesting to zoom out. What else had Newport '65 attendees been hearing that day? What earlier sounds might have set the context for this level of outrage?
So I wanted to listen to every other set that occurred Sunday, July 25, 1965. I found recordings scattered across compilation LPs and CDs. Where I couldn't find any trace of someone’s actual Newport set, I researched who they were and what they likely sounded like on stage that summer.
One caveat: Scheduling at Newport was subject to last-minute changes. I did my best to figure out who actually played when (aided in part by Elijah Wald's essential book Dylan Goes Electric), but records differ and memories have grown fuzzy with time.
Perhaps this will help me, and anyone else who remains a little mystified by the sheer level of the crowd reaction, understand how Bob's performance might have struck folk fans there that day.
*** First Show: Gospel in the Morning ***
The day started with a gospel concert at 10am, which I'm largely skipping here because A) it mostly featured performers from elsewhere in the festival, B) there are few recordings, and C) attendance was reportedly small, so it doesn't further my goal of getting into the mindset of the Newport masses later in the day. That said, gospel performances from Son House and the Rev. Gary Davis sound like they would have been great! More folkies should have gotten up early.
There also aren’t many recordings from this morning show. The Chambers Brothers I know for sure comes from this; the other three below might be from their other sets that weekend:
*** Second Show: "New Folks" Showcase in the Afternoon ***
The second of the three big shows on Sunday - and the first with a sizeable crowd - came in the afternoon, with the so-called "New Folks" showcase. This was Peter Yarrow's baby, and he pops up throughout. A grumpy Village Voice reviewer wrote that, of the five official concerts throughout the weekend, this was the only good one. Seven thousand fans were here by then - it was reported as the biggest afternoon-show crowd ever - so let's see what they saw that whetted their appetites - or sharpened their knives - before the evening's events.
Listening to the opening set by father and son fiddle duo Lue & Byrone Berline, you get an immediate taste of why someone who had come to Newport for this might not want electric-Bob. New performers in the “New Folk” showcase, maybe, but some very old sounds. That's no slight to them - they're excellent, and the four songs I found make me wish I had the whole set - but old-timey fiddle music doesn't exactly scream "the future." At this festival, Bill Monroe invited Byron to join his band, and Byron would later record "Turkey Chase" with Dylan for the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid soundtrack.
* Blue Ridge Mountain Dancers were a square dancing troupe formed in 1962. They had been a hit at Newport '64, performing to live music from Pete and Mike Seeger (this video comes from that '64 set), so they returned for a few appearances this year. The paper called them the "personification of vigorous youth." I'd call them an extremely square dancing troupe, if you catch my drift.
I only know the Charles River Valley Boys for their fun bluegrass-Beatles covers record, but that wouldn't come out until the following year. No sign they played any Beatles tunes at Newport, sadly. Seems like mostly old-time and gospel songs. Again - and this is going to be a trend throughout the afternoon - it's funny to imagine this sound being presented among the hot young things.
Folk singer Hamilton Camp had early-'60s success as a duo with Bob Gibson (they appeared at Newport 1960) and was trying to go solo around this time. His debut solo album the previous year, Paths of Victory, had featured seven Dylan covers. Six were songs Bob had not yet released himself, facilitated by Camp's manager Albert Grossman. A classic Grossman move, shifting songs from one client to another while pocketing his cut on both ends. Camp seemed to be trying to follow directly in Bob-circa-1962's footsteps; his album cover even looks like a swarthier Dylan with a better guitar. He tried it a few years too late, perhaps; a solo performing career never took off. However, his song "Pride of Man," off that same album, got covered by Gordon Lightfoot (Grossman's work again, no doubt - he also managed him), Gram Parsons, and Quicksilver Messenger Service.
Another hotly-tipped Elektra folk act that never really happened, Kathy & Carol were Kathleen Larisch and Carol McComb. Peter Stampfel of Holy Modal Rounders called them "light years ahead of any girl duo I have ever heard anywhere." Like Camp, though, getting booked at Newport '65 seems to be the peak of their moment. Their set may have done them no favors (though it sounds awful purty on the recording; I hear a little Roches and Sandy Denny). "Cathy [sic] and Carol went by almost unnoticed, because their music is soft-sell, and soft-sell cannot compete with the Chambers Brothers," wrote one Broadside reviewer. Apparently, other than their 1965 album that went nowhere, this Newport recording was the only other track ever officially released.
Has Bob known bluesman "Spider" John Koerner longer than anyone else on the bill? They met back in Minneapolis, before Bob even got to New York, and performed together often. At one point Bob recorded a tape for John to pass along to Odetta (wonder what ever happened to it). Bob writes about John extensively in Chronicles:
With my newly learned repertoire, I then went further up the street and dropped into the Ten O’Clock Scholar, a Beat coffeehouse. I was looking for players with kindred pursuits. The first guy I met in Minneapolis like me was sitting around in there. It was John Koerner and he also had an acoustic guitar with him. Koerner was tall and thin with a look of perpetual amusement on his face. We hit it off right away. We already knew a few of the same songs like “Wabash Cannonball” and “Waiting for a Train.” Koerner had just gotten out of the Marine Corps, was an aeronautical engineering student. He was from Rochester, New York, already married and had gotten into folk music a couple of years earlier than me, learned a lot of songs off of a guy named Harry Webber-mostly street ballads. But he played a lot of blues type stuff, too, traditional barroom kind of things. We sat around and I played my Odetta songs and a few by Leadbelly, whose record I had heard earlier than Odetta. John played “Casey Jones,” “Golden Vanity”-he played a lot of ragtime style stuff, things like “Dallas Rag.” When he spoke he was soft spoken, but when he sang he became a field holler shouter. Koerner was an exciting singer, and we began playing a lot together.
Two songs seem to survive from Koerner’s Sunday Newport set, one with harmonica player Tony Glover, who also played with Bob in Minneapolis (and is responsible for some of the first Dylan recordings). It's Delta blues, but as from the Delta as the Mississippi River gets. From the laughs during a charmingly ramshackle "Duncan and Brady," he appeared the have the crowd eating out of his hand.
Mark Spoelstra knew Dylan almost as long as Spider John had, playing regularly with a new-to-NYC Dylan in '61. That famous photo of baby-Bob playing in a stairwell with another guy? That's Mark. After recording a couple albums for Folkways, though, his career took a detour: He received a draft notice. Rather than enlist, he signed up as a conscience objector and worked as a social worker in California from 1963-65 - making him a relatively early adopter to the "conscience objector" move, as liner notes for a reissue point out. Apparently he was always ahead of the curve; previewing the festival, Broadside noted that "As a teenager, Mark had his own jug band, several years ahead of the jug band boom," which I mostly note because I laughed aloud reading the phrase "the jug band boom."
Newport '65 appears to mark his re-emergence of sorts, promoting his first Elektra album Five & Twenty Questions. According to those same liner notes, it got a song-by-song review from John Lennon, who scrawled insights like "good vocal sounds—cozy" and "very hillbilly, folksy, Hank Williams sound." Hank Williams seems a bit of a grand name to throw at what sounds to me like a run-of-the-mill '60s folkie album. "Phil Ochs with worse songs" would have been my scrawl. If Newport '65 was part of his grand comeback, it seems mostly lost to history, earning only this review from the local paper: "early protest music of a generational, rather than political, slant" (heh?). No recording, but here's something from that album he was promoting:
Going into Newport '65, one might have expected The Chambers Brothers to emerge as the breakout story. They had not yet released an album, but these four sons of a Baptist minister were personally boosted by Pete Seeger. They even got Joan Baez up on stage during this set, to duet on "Just A Closer Walk With Thee." Maybe most of note: they performed in a full electric setup - drums, bass, guitars - to no obvious controversy. The Providence Journal noted that, had they not been at a folk festival, this "would have at be described as rock 'n' roll." The heavy gospel influence, coupled with the fact that few knew who they were, may have let them skate away from controversy.
Fun fact: They also were the band playing at the artists' afterparty later that night. That's the one where, when asked to dance by Maria Muldaur, Dylan uttered his famous response, "I would dance with you, Maria, but my hands are on fire." Better luck next time, Chambers Brothers.
Another in that "then-promising newcomer whose career never really went anywhere" category (sensing a trend?), Patrick Sky was a new signee to Vanguard, the semi-official label of Newport Folk. Like Camp, if he'd come along just a few years earlier, he might have been a star, but this old-time political music was already on the way out. Judging from the one song we have from his set, he's pretty funny and engaging, with a lighter touch than so many of the Serious. Artists. here. He did later produce several Mississippi John Hurt albums, and apparently built his own bagpipes - sadly not present on this recording.
Gordon Lightfoot needs no introduction now, but he did at Newport '65, performing before he'd even released a record. He was so young he hadn't even grown his facial hair yet. Folkie favorites Ian and Sylvia had released the first version of "Early Morning Rain" a few months prior, though, so he was pegged as one to watch. Doubly so because he was represented by Grossman. Guess who else Grossman managed? Ian & Sylvia. No recording from the set - bummer - so let's skip many years forward to an extremely 1980s Bob inducting Gordon into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.
The big news of the afternoon set came from Mimi & Dick Fariña. Bob-bestie Dick apparently had planned Newport as the duo's big break. Dick even announcing the duo's signing to Grossman Management in the festival program. Know who else learned about it there? Mimi.
Sure enough, this set did become the talk of the festival, though not for any reason Dick could have stage-managed. A torrential downpour began partway through. The Newport Daily News used up half its review on this:
Pelting rain at the height of the afternoon Festival concerts yesterday failed to dampen the ardor of some 7,000 fans, who proved their enthusiasm is not just a fair weather affair.
The largest crowd to attend any afternoon concert just sat there and let themselves be drenched - completely absorbed in the music of Mimi and Dick Farina.
Mimi, talented sister of Joan Baez, who sings and plays guitar, and her husband, who plays the dulcimer with extraordinary effect [note: the scan is grainy and it almost reads "with extraordinary effort," which would be a wonderfully dry burn], just moved a little to the rear of the stage and kept singing.
The Farinas, even without their indifference to the downpour, would have been among the smash successes of the concert.
Mimi's voice is so much like Joan's that when the Folk Queen herself joined them to sing "Birmingham Sunday," the two were like one voice singing two parts. The Farinas also were assisted by Sebastian Dangerfield on the tub [the tub?] and Bruce Langhorn, Odetta's accompanist, the "tambourine king."
Looking back later, Joe Boyd, who ran sound at Newport (and would soon become famous in his own right recording Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, and early Pink Floyd), said, "The images that would become rock festival clichés in the ensuing years - young girls in flimsy tops made transparent by the rain; mud staining the faces of ecstatically grinning kids - made some of their earliest appearances during the Fariñas’ set that afternoon." And Pete Seeger, unaware that his mood was due to darken in a couple hours, called the scene "wonderful."
No surprise, then, that they are the only Sunday artist other than Bob to have released a recording of their entire performance. This might have been the big story out of Newport '65, had Bob not upstaged them hours later.
Both Bernice Johnson Reagon and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band were still due to follow the Fariñas, but the band got their set bumped to the evening to avert the disaster of rainwater mixing with electric gear. So Freedom Singers co-founder Reagon closed things out. The Freedom Singers had toured supporting the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, having been recruited by fan Pete Seeger, and performed at 1963's March on Washington, where they presumably crossed paths with Dylan. The next year, in fact, Bob visited her in Atlanta during a cross-country road trip - the road trip where he wrote “Chimes of Freedom” in the back seat (some have speculated his meeting with her inspired it). At Newport, she performed her a cappella set as the downpour continued. The Newport Daily News reported she got "the drenched audience clapping and stomping accompaniment." No recording of her set, but this was reportedly one of the songs she sang. You can see why Bob might have felt inspired.
*** The Main Event: Sunday Evening ***
The main show went until 1am, though Bob went on halfway through the evening. Which admittedly means everything after didn't affect the mindset of anyone booing his set, but what the heck, I'm on a roll. Also, many of them played other sets earlier in the weekend, so they did each play their small part in the general atmosphere leading up to Dylan.
If you only know one thing about Newport '65 - which is most people - it's Dylan. But if you're one of the rare few who knows a second thing, it's probably the backstage scuffle that took place during the Paul Butterfield Blues Band's set. Albert Grossman (him again) objected to Alan Lomax's backhanded onstage introduction, and, according to some reports, the two ended up tussling on the ground weakly throwing punches. I was sorry to discover that had taken place earlier in the weekend. I can't find evidence of a single punch being thrown during this Sunday set - how disappointing! In fact, the Grossman v. Lomax controversy didn't appear to extend to the rest of the folk world; Broadside opened their editor's letter in the issue after Newport writing, "In a sky full of ascending stars, there is at least one nova in dazzling eruption. That is The Paul Butterfield Blues Band."
Since Butterfield's set had been pushed due to the afternoon shower, the real opening act of the evening show was…somebody's baby. No, not the terrible Jackson Browne song - somebody's actual baby. Pete Seeger's sister's new baby, specifically. Seeger opened the evening show proper playing a recording of tiny Sonya crying and saying "This little baby is kind of wondering what kind of a world it's coming into, and you and I gotta help think about it, too." I assume that, before the night was out, the baby was managed by Albert Grossman.
Given the unenviable task of following a newborn, 70-year-old Texas blues player Mance Lipscomb performed a trick probably lost on everyone but the hundred closest to the stage: Using the blade of his pocket knife as a slide. Works pretty well, judging by the recording. Dylan had cited a maybe-imagined meeting with Lipscomb in a lot of his early interviews - during his "making up the biography" phase - as influential on his journey to becoming a musician.
Some sources (including the Newport '65 program) say the Moving Star Hall Singers performed again here. But Elijah Wald's book, which seems as definitive as it gets, doesn't. Nevertheless, I really like this South Carolina gospel group, so I'm going to include a recording of another performance they gave at some point. Maybe it was here.
Many first heard the name Eric Von Schmidt via his shoutout on Bob's debut album. "I first heard this from, uh, Ric Von Schmidt," he says strumming the opening to "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down." "He lives in Cambridge. Ric's a blues guitar player. I met him one day in, uh, the green pastures of Harvard University."
What he leaves out: They played croquet that day. "Dylan playing croquet under the influence of half a bottle of red wine and some grass was really hilarious," Von Schmidt said later. "He couldn't hit the ball with the mallet half the time, and the great thing about it was that he just kind of gloried in it."
"Baby, Let Me Follow You Down" wasn't Von Schmidt’s only Dylan-album cameo either. Zoom in on the cover of Bringing It All Back Home. What record's sitting on top of Bob's pile? The Folk Blues of Eric von Schmidt. A few years later, Bob wrote in liner notes to another of Ric’s albums, "Here is a man who can sing the bird off the wire and the rubber off the tire. He can separate the men from the boys and the note from the noise. The bridle from the saddle and the cow from the cattle. He can play the tune of the moon. The why of the sky and the commotion from the ocean." At Newport, he played this set backed by the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. He's a perfectly good singer but, on this song at least, Bob's blurb oversells it a bit. The rubber remains securely on my tires.
The Fiddler Beers Family was Bob Beers, his wife Evelyne, and their daughter Martha who primarily played traditional Scottish and English ballads. Though their recording career didn't last, they ended up working for the government, first playing the White House in 1969 and then being sent overseas by the State Department to share American music with international audiences.
No recording of this set, but it probably sounded like this. Again, pleasant enough, but this and the next set are what they schedule to lead into electric-Bob? No wonder people were shocked! It’s like having Patti Page open for Motörhead.
"The first hillbilly performer to ever own a Cadillac" is the slightly odd onstage intro Mike Seeger gave Cousin Emmy. In Newport's performer balance between the bright young things and spotlighting older performances they thought the audience should want to see (whether they did or not), Cousin Emmy fell squarely on the other side of the line, having first been recorded by Alan Lomax back in 1947. Perhaps to help get her over to the young folk kids, she was backed here by the comparatively hip New Lost City Ramblers. Almost as much a comedy act as she was a musician, she played "Turkey in the Straw" on her cheeks. She was, apparently, a smash - such a smash that, during Bob's set next, one outraged fan yells "Bring back Cousin Emmy!"
According to the Newport Daily News, Bob Dylan then delivered "a grand finale that delighted everyone.” Oh really? That’s not what I heard… (They even got the “grand finale” part wrong - the show was only half over!)
The post-Dylan half kicked off with the Nigerian Ishangi Dance Troupe, which was apparently inspired by Hassan Razan's rage at how the popular Tarzan movies depicted Africa. He performed with his wife, sister, and, on the recording below, two daughters (age 5 and 7). A shame there's no footage, which would seem more the point with a dance troupe than audio, but they're making the music too, and it sounds like a hell of a show. Listen close to hear the kids.
Len Chandler's set might have created controversy of its own, had it not been overshadowed. He reportedly announced he opposed the Vietnam War from the stage and, believe it or not, some people booed. People were just going boo crazy at this point, I guess. Len responded that he hoped the boo-ers would get drafted. Guess Vietnam hadn't quite become the galvanizing issue among the folkies it would in a couple years.
Bob took the melody for "The Death of Emmitt Till" from Chandler. As Bob explained in a 1962 interview, "[Len] uses a lot of funny chords when he plays and he…trying to teach me new chords all the time. Well, he played me this one. Said don't these chords sound nice? And I said, they sure do, and so I stole it, stole the whole thing." Here's Len on Pete Seeger's TV show the following year:
Another where I couldn't find a recording (which is going to be the case for most everything else at this point - did Bob's set blow out the tape machine?), Pete Seeger's Weavers bandmate Ronnie Gilbert covered Dylan's "Masters of War" during her set. Ballsy move, after what just transpired. She did seem to obliquely acknowledge it by saying, "I would like to pay tribute, if I could, to that poetic genius that only comes in the very young, and that must resolve itself into something else, someday." I can't find any mid-‘60s footage, but here's a song from 1951 with the Weavers that includes a nice duet between her and Pete:
Originally scheduled for Thursday, Josh White for whatever reason appeared Sunday instead. A real bummer that there's no recording, as he's one of my favorite blues singers. And not just blues, he can also do folk, country, gospel. Like Seeger, he had found himself blacklisted during the McCarthy era. When called up before Congress, he read aloud the lyrics to "Strange Fruit." His Newport set was accompanied by a jazz bassist and Newport co-founder George Wein himself on piano. No recording, but here’s a great later video I found while researching:
We're getting near the end now. And I wonder what percentage of the crowd was still around to hear Jean Ritchie, as it neared midnight and the night's star attraction was long gone. Bob apparently has listened to Jean Ritchie most of his life, citing her as a formative influence when he was a teen and, again, citing her as someone he was currently listening to in a 1991 interview. All the info I can find about her Newport set is that she performed this song:
The last Civil Rights performer of the night, Fannie Lou Hamer was only barely a singer (Discogs reports one 2015 archival album from Folkways). She was an activist for both Black and women's rights, co-founding the Freedom Democratic Party. Martin Luther King wrote that, at the 1964 Democratic Convention, “her testimony educated a nation and brought the political powers to their knees in repentance." John Lewis, who passed yesterday as I write this, called her "the essence of raw courage." She did, however, use hymns and protest songs to help her in her work, and that's presumably what she did here, with a bunch of other singers up to help her out, including Odetta, Richie Havens, and Seeger.
The headliner of the second set, Peter, Paul & Mary are easy to clown (don't get me started on their wince-inducing "I Dig Rock & Roll Music"), but I've always had a soft spot for their corny good cheer. Peter Yarrow, of course, had joined the Board of Newport and was the main person behind the "New Folks" afternoon set. They, too, covered Dylan on stage - "The Times, They Are A Changin'" (notice they're all picking the "finger-pointing" songs after Bob's notably apolitical set) - and led a big sing-along finale. Billboard reported that, though it was after midnight, the roaring crowd "wouldn't let them leave." A much better reception than the night's other main act got.
That was supposed to be it. But Seeger remained upset. After the earlier disturbance, he felt things needed one more send off. And then another. And then another. So in a grand finale so grand it went on and on, Pete Seeger corralled Joan Baez to leading the crowd in a Portuguese folk song, then brought South African pennywhistler Spokes Mashiyane led some sort of rhythmic jam session, then took the stage himself to lead everyone in "Down By the Riverside." Finally, as the last remaining stragglers staggered off the grounds, Mel Lyman played a mournful "Rock of Ages" on harmonica.
Rather than saving the night, as Pete had hoped, this endless finale hammered another nail in the folk coffin. Robert Shelton called it a mob scene. Mary Travers of Peter, Paul, and Mary, said that "the only thing that finale was lacking was colored slides of Art Nouveaux." Sing Out co-founder Irwin Silber wrote that he "sensed a feeling of revulsion even among some of the Newport directors who were themselves participating in the debacle."
Best burn of all came from Phil Ochs, who wrote in a satirical review of the event that
This year the traditional ending degenerated into a La Dolce Vita party as several disparate performers, festival officials, audience members and passers-by joined in a Kafkaesque song-and-dance exhibition. There were so many people packed on stage, there legally should have been another fire exit.
Next year perhaps they will feature a Radio City Hall Rockette routine including janitors, drunken sailors, town prostitutes, clergy of all denominations, sanitation engineers, small time Rhode Island politicians, and a bewildered cab driver.
The one person who didn't get onstage during the finale? Bob Dylan. He would have, Maria, but his hands were on fire.
After all that, am I closer to understanding why people booed? A little. Listening to performer after performer here makes it clear just how far apart Bob stood. To Newport's credit, performers were pretty diverse in both demographics and sound; the endless array of earnest folkies I expected didn't come to pass, broken up by more gospel, blues, and, for lack of a better word, "world music" than I'd anticipated. But they all had at least one foot in some old-time sounds, even the ostensibly electric Chambers Brothers (gospel) and Paul Butterfield Blues Band (blues, duh).
Dylan's set was louder and more aggressive than any of the others by a country mile. Every preceding set, diverse though they were, showed performers at least nodding to tradition. Not only was Bob the only one to not do that, but the audience felt particular ownership of in. To quote the intro he was given the previous year, "you know him; he's yours!"
The boo-ers weren't right, of course. But the Newport lineup didn’t exactly ease them into it. Sometimes you get knocked off guard and land on the wrong side of history.
I pulled from several dozen sources for this, but of particular help were Elijah Wald's book ‘Dylan Goes Electric!’, the Newport Daily News archives, this article about Michael Bloomfield, the liner notes for the ‘Folk at Newport’ compilation CD, and the archives of New England folk magazine The Broadside.