Bob Dylan's plug-in 50 years ago is still electrifying

CBC Radio's The Sunday Edition looks back at a watershed moment in popular music.

Playing Maggie's Farm on a Fender Stratocaster shocked the folkies but opened many musical doors

Bob Dylan goes electric at the Newport Folk Festival on July 25, 1965. (Getty Images)

Fifty years ago this month at the Newport Folk Festival, Bob Dylan plugged in an electric guitar and changed the face of pop music forever.

In the early '60s, Bob Dylan's hippie anthems like Blowin' in the Wind earned him the adoration of Joan Baez and Pete Seeger and the title Crown Prince of Folk.

After wowing crowds at the legendary Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island in 1963, as Baez's guest, and 1964, where he was introduced by The Weavers' Ronnie Gilbert, his third appearance on July 25, 1965, was hotly anticipated. The audience was estimated at 100,000. 

Dylan, however, was already chafing at his folkie fans' expectations. A few weeks earlier, the 24-year-old musician has recorded Like a Rolling Stone, the song that signalled his transition from acoustic folk to electric rock.

The single had only been out for five days when Dylan took the stage at Newport with his Fender Stratocaster.

Accompanied by members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, he ripped into an electric version of Maggie's Farm.

Legend has it that the crowd then ripped into him. He was booed. He was called a sellout. 

Dylan's response was to play two more electric songs, Like a Rolling Stone and It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.

Allegedly, Seeger was so angry that he threatened to take an axe and cut the wires to the sound board.

Looking back on the anniversary of this event, musicologist Rob Bowman says stories about the reaction to Dylan's folk revolt seem to be greatly exaggerated. While there were boos, he explained to Sunday Edition guest host Rachel Giese, some in the crowd cheered Dylan on. 

As for Seeger's freak-out, "I wasn't there but I've heard people say [that story] is ridiculous," says Bowman, a professor of music at York University in Toronto. 

"Pete wanted to pull the cords out, but he didn't grab an axe. Others say that the sound quality was terrible and that was the real issue. I think that's probably true. The people working at Newport were not used to mixing electric music. Personally, I don't think Seeger would use an axe when he could just pull the plug."

Nonetheless, Bowman says, "that the story even exists and has been repeated so often speaks volumes to the fact that this event was seen as a battle between good and evil. This really was an incredibly, ideologically important moment."

Folk artists and musicians believed acoustic instruments were purer and more authentic than electric ones, which were seen as evil tools of modern technology, Bowman says. "Plugging in was the antithesis of what the folkies believed in."

This low point in Dylan's career, however, would prove to be a high point in the annals of rock history. His performance had a profound impact on the future of pop music. 

"This was a watershed moment," Bowman says. "Between mid-1965 and mid-1966, there was a shift from the idea that pop music was made by entertainers whose careers might last two or three years to the idea that pop music was made by artists who were expected to grow and develop and potentially have careers that go on for decades." 

He adds that there is rock legacy that can be drawn from Dylan's electric moment right through the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Kinks, Bruce Springsteen and beyond. 

It was after this performance, Bowman says, that rock changed forever. 

"Rock artists began to write more complicated lyrics about social issues. Dylan changed the thematic possibilities [of pop music], the type of language it used, its syntactic structure. He opened the doors for everybody who came after."

This week on The Sunday Edition

Starting at 9 a.m. July 12 on CBC Radio's The Sunday Edition:

Internet double:  Just what happened when Molly met Molly? A documentary by CBC Halifax journalist Molly Segal, who confronts the namesake who haunts her online.

How medical is medical marijuana? An update to a special report on the legal and health issues surrounding the drug, including conversations with Vancouver Coun. Kerry Jang; and Dr. Mark Ware, executive director of the Canadian Consortium for the Investigation of Cannabinoids. 

Cricket cuisine:  Producer Frank Faulk gets a taste of cricket. Not the sport, the bug.  He pays a visit to a farm that's banking on insects as the future of food production.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.