The 1965 Newport Folk Festival is widely considered one of the most iconic moments in rock history. It is one of those historical moments where it felt like everything changed radically in an instant, where the familiar fell apart and a new thing was birthed. A lot has been written and said about the event; if you want to learn more I suggest starting with the documentary No Direction Home and Dorian Lynskey’s excellent book 33 Revolutions Per Minute.
But here are the basics, as far as I understand them:
Between the 1930s and the 1960s, many people became enthusiastic and inspired by America’s folk music tradition, using its simplicity and straightforwardness, and romance of the true “music of the people” to craft songs of their own. This was not, however, an unconditional love. They were drawn to these songs with a strong political agenda, and the songs they crafted articulated those values, drawing attention to social ills and the hope for a better world. Musicians like Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs, and Joan Baez performed and crafted songs in hopes they would change the world, and win hearts and minds away from values of racism and selfishness, empowering the common man and woman to overthrow their chains. At least that was the theory.
In this universe of songwriters aiming to change the world with nothing but a guitar and an honest voice, two people stood out: Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan.
Seeger, perhaps more than anyone else, articulated and lived the values of a man who truly believed that music could mobilize people to build a better world. With a militant inclusivity, his concerts were always sing-alongs, inviting everyone to join in, so that his performances of “We Shall Overcome,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” and “If I Had a Hammer” did not glorify himself, but created a community of people making music together. After almost a decade of his voice being silenced in a climate of political repression and McCarthy-ist “Marxophobia,” Pete Seeger was making a comeback in the early 1960s, with songs that both made him a lot of acclaim and led the way in social movements for racial equality and peacemaking.
Bob Dylan was widely considered the most talented songwriter in this group. Songs like “Blowing in the Wind,” “With God on Our Side,” and “Only a Pawn in the Game,” had a sense of poetic craftsmanship and power that left a very memorable impression on listeners. By 1963, he found himself coroneted as “a prophet,” “the voice of a generation,” and other high expectations as the leader of this protest song movement.
The only problem was, “Bob Dylan” the left-wing folk singer icon was starting to suffocate Robert Zimmerman, the human being with creative ideas of his own. In his memoir Chronicles, Dylan described feeling overwhelmed and frustrated with such high expectations saying “I wasn’t a preacher performing miracles…It would have driven anybody mad.”
He was starting to become more interested in honing his craft beyond the service of a political agenda, writing songs that were less straightforward and more cryptic. The messages moved away from political to personal, emphasizing personal freedom rather then communal liberation emphasizing “I” rather than “we.” His music also moved away from the “three chords and the truth” of folk music, experimenting with rock n’ roll influences that would usher in the folk-rock movement of the mid and late 60s.
Needless to say, the startlingly transition from this:
“Like Pharaoh’s tribe, they’ll be drownded in the tide. And like Goliath, they’ll be conquered.”
“I try my best to be just like I am, but everybody wants you to be just like them.”
was bound to create confusion, controversy, and conflict. His performance at Newport Folk 1965 was the moment where it all came to a head.
His performance with an electric guitar and backed up by the legendary Paul Butterfield Blues Band only got through 15 minutes of the planned 45-minute set. While some cheered, other booed, aghast at the discordant noise and air of alienating sophistication that seemed to go against everything they valued in music. Among the “old guard” backstage, all hell was breaking loose. Pete Seeger was especially irate, and, in what was not his finest moment, was threatening to find an axe and cut the chord to the music. In fairness, he has later contended that his main concern was the loudness of the instruments drowning out the words, but apocryphal legends that he attempted to destroy the festival’s sound system were emblematic of the resistance he doubtless felt to radical shift afoot in the musical world he loved so much. Shaken up by the strong resistance he felt, Dylan returned with an acoustic guitar and sang “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” in a gesture equally poignant and passive aggressive.
Ultimately, Dylan’s vision of unfettered individual freedom and creativity would win the day over Seeger’s dream of the artist as servant to a group mobilizing a “singing army” for change. Joe Boyd, who was working the sound for the show, wrote in his book White Bicycles that, far from being elated, the more individualistic new guard was somber recognizing that:
“In their victory lay the death of something wonderful. The rebels were like children who had ben looking for something to break, and realized, as they looked at the pieces, what a beautiful thing it had been.”
The struggle represented in that performance 50 years ago is one that remains with us today. Should musicians focus on bringing people together, creating community, or realizing their own creative vision?
I think the answer we have to settle on is: both. There is a place for music to both bring all people together, for a performer to empower the audience and bring them alongside a journey that makes the world a better place. And there is a place for music to be complex and creative, and challenge our preconceived notions and inspire by pushing the limits of what feels possible. Looking back, we can see that “We Shall Overcome” empowered people to risk their lives to work for a more just world, and “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” gave us a sense of groove and creativity that has lent so much joy and excitement to many people’s lives. In that sense, both songs – and both understandings of what songs could do – changed the world.
These two impulses are both valuable, and should be listened to by any creative musician. There’s no easy answer telling us which approach is “right” or “wrong” for any individual in any particular moment. All we can do is live in the tension, and do the best we can in a particular moment with that creative tension. It’s not easy. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.