Dylan Performs with Electric Instruments

Folk purists were outraged when folksinger Bob Dylan first performed with electric instruments, but he succeeding in merging folk and rock styles, forging a style that would influence the course of popular music for years to come.

Summary of Event

By 1965, Bob Dylan was the leading folksinger in the United States. He had recorded five albums, four of which fit squarely in the tradition of the folk music movement of the early 1960’s. Folk music had its roots in hillbilly and country music; it was played on acoustic—that is, nonelectric—instruments, most often guitar and string bass. Dylan’s protest songs of the early 1960’s, such as “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” and “Masters of War,” were immensely popular, especially among young people beginning to question the values of American society. The solitary figure of Dylan, scruffily dressed and accompanying himself with only folk guitar and harmonica, had, in a few short years, come to symbolize the integrity of the folk movement’s tradition and ideals. Dylan also represented the relevance of folk music to the times: His songs were sung at civil rights marches and rallies throughout the United States. His style, however, was about to change. Music;electrified instruments
Guitars, electric
Folk rock
Rock and roll
Newport Folk Festival
[kw]Dylan Performs with Electric Instruments (July 25, 1965)
[kw]Electric Instruments, Dylan Performs with (July 25, 1965)
Music;electrified instruments
Guitars, electric
Folk rock
Rock and roll
Newport Folk Festival
[g]North America;July 25, 1965: Dylan Performs with Electric Instruments[08450]
[g]United States;July 25, 1965: Dylan Performs with Electric Instruments[08450]
[c]Music;July 25, 1965: Dylan Performs with Electric Instruments[08450]
Dylan, Bob
Bloomfield, Mike
Kooper, Al
Rothchild, Paul A.

In July of 1965, Dylan was scheduled to perform at the annual Newport Folk Festival, the most important venue in the United States for performers in traditional and modern folk idioms. He had performed there before, in 1963 and 1964, to great acclaim; this time, however, his audience had a surprise in store. Dylan recently had returned from a trip to England, where he had been inspired by groups such as the Beatles; he had heard a group called the Animals perform the traditional folk song “House of the Rising Sun” with electric instruments and drums, which particularly impressed him.

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band Paul Butterfield Blues Band , a band that performed with drums and electric instruments, was also on the bill at the 1965 Newport festival. Its presence marked one of the first times a band with amplified instruments had performed there (although blues played on nonelectric instruments had been a regular feature), and Dylan decided to have the band back him up. As Dylan took the stage on the night of Sunday, July 25, carrying an electric guitar, accompanied by a band, and wearing trendy English clothes rather than his characteristic simple attire, the festival’s folk audience undoubtedly was perplexed and apprehensive.

Dylan’s entire performance that night consisted of only five songs—three with the Butterfield band, then two as solo numbers. The band played the songs at a fast tempo. Its performance was driving and somewhat ragged; it was also loud. The sound was decidedly not that of folk music: The volume, fast tempi, and use of drums and electric guitar essentially turned it into rock and roll. The reaction of the audience went from stunned to confused to antagonistic—there were catcalls and boos. After three songs, Dylan said to the band, “Let’s go, man—that’s all.” He was persuaded to return to the stage, however, and he calmed the audience by playing two more songs while accompanying himself on folk guitar.

Regardless of the Newport audience’s response, Dylan knew that he was moving in the right direction. A month later, on August 28, he performed a concert in Forest Hills, New York, at which he first played a solo nonelectric set, then a second set with a band; again, the audience reaction was strongly negative. Dylan’s next album also was released in August. A fully electric album, it was entitled Highway 61 Revisited
Highway 61 Revisited (Dylan)[Highway Sixty one Revisited] and would become one of the most influential recordings of the 1960’s.

The music of Highway 61 Revisited was in a bluesy rock-and-roll style that (as had the Newport festival performance) prominently featured the electric guitar work of Mike Bloomfield and the organ playing of Al Kooper. The songs’ lyrics were like nothing ever heard before in rock, folk, or any other kind of music. Surreal, accusatory, relentless, even unabashedly angry, they continued for many long verses, sung over loud, repetitive music propelled by drums and electric guitars. The lyrics were so personal and abstract that, although one could experience them emotionally, one could never quite be sure what they meant. “The beauty parlor’s filled with sailors/The circus is in town,” Dylan sang in “Desolation Row,” “Desolation Row” (Dylan)[Desolation Row] a song in which “Einstein disguised as Robin Hood” wanders off “sniffing drainpipes and reciting the alphabet.” The singing style that Dylan instinctively adopted in order to be effective over the sound of the amplified instruments also was unique. In an exaggeration of his husky and expressive folk style, he half-sang and half-shouted, gliding and swooping between notes. The album and the “new” Bob Dylan were fiercely loathed and equally fiercely loved.

These events created a furor in folk music circles. Many people declared that Dylan was “selling out.” Folk music aficionados perceived their music, with its traditions and its protests against racial and economic injustice, to be in sharp contrast to crass commercial music—either contrived “pop” songs with orchestras or, worse, vacuous teenage rock-and-roll songs. At the Newport festival in 1965, therefore, Dylan broke two cardinal rules of folk music: He was singing songs that lyrically had nothing to do with folk tradition or social protest, and he was performing them in a manner that sounded exactly like rock and roll.

In early 1966 came the recording sessions for the double album Blonde on Blonde, Blonde on Blonde (Dylan) which was released in the early summer of that year. Both a consolidation and an extension of the rock sound of the previous record, it was an artistic and commercial success. Not long after its release, however, on July 29, Dylan suffered a motorcycle accident that compelled him to relax for the first time in five years. He withdrew from the public eye for nearly eighteen months; when he released the album John Wesley Harding
John Wesley Harding (Dylan) in early 1968, his style had changed again, to a simpler sound with subtle elements of country music. The influence that Dylan had on the development of rock music stemmed primarily from the period beginning with the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 and ending with the release of Blonde on Blonde in 1966—a period of about one year.


When Dylan “went electric” at the Newport Folk Festival and on his recordings, he may have alienated folk purists, but he gained a new audience that the purists never could have imagined. Dylan, it was soon said, spoke for a generation. This “generation” was the result of a particular moment in American history: the turbulent 1960’s, with its Civil Rights movement, protests against the Vietnam War, and counterculture United States;counterculture
Counterculture;music movement that claimed to reject materialism and turned to music, drugs, and meditation in an attempt to find meaning or at least consolation in life. Dylan’s music was listened to, discussed, danced to, and written about in ways that no popular music had been before. It was analyzed and absurdly overanalyzed. The Dylan persona became a legend and a myth; he was even considered by some followers to be an oracle.

The primary impact of Dylan’s entry into the genre of rock music, with its emphasis on electric instruments and dance beats, was that rock gained an intellectual respectability that it had not previously had. Dylan’s surreal images provided the first body of work in this genre that could be considered poetry set to a rock beat. Its merits could be argued, for example, in the way that the merits of the Beat poetry of the 1950’s were discussed. On a practical level, he also proved that rock artists could pursue serious themes and still sell a considerable number of records. Of the musicians of the rock era who were directly influenced by Dylan’s combination of rock music and cerebral lyrics, the Beatles were the most important and influential.

Dylan and the Beatles became keenly aware of each other’s music in 1965, and each influenced the other. It was from the Beatles Beatles, the and the other English groups of the era that Dylan took the idea of working with electric instruments. From Dylan, the Beatles in turn learned that they could expand their horizons and still be popular with their audiences. The lyrics of such Beatles albums as Revolver
Revolver (Beatles) (1966) and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Beatles)[Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band] (1967) clearly owe a debt to Dylan. Examples include the songs “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (in which “cellophane flowers” tower overhead and “newspaper taxis appear on the shore”) and “Eleanor Rigby” and “A Day in the Life,” with their disturbing evocations of the emptiness of life and conventional values. Another extremely influential artist of the late 1960’s, guitarist Jimi Hendrix, was strongly influenced by Dylan in his lyric writing, which gave his blues-based music a surreal cast.

The controversy over Dylan’s turn to electric music overshadowed the fact that, by the time of his performance at the Newport Folk Festival, an electric version of Dylan’s song “Mr. Tambourine Man” “Mr. Tambourine Man” (Dylan)[Mr Tambourine Man] already had become a huge radio hit in a version by the Byrds, Byrds, the a group based in Los Angeles. It was the sound of the Byrds’ recordings, with their pleasant harmonies and electric versions of folk classics (as well as a number of Dylan songs), that typified the genre that was quickly dubbed “folk rock.” Folk rock used the rock rhythm section (drums and electric bass) but blended electric and acoustic instruments. Groups that fit within the folk-rock genre included the Mamas and the Papas and Simon and Garfunkel Simon and Garfunkel . “Sounds of Silence,” “Sounds of Silence” (Simon and Garfunkel)[Sounds of Silence] the song that launched the latter’s career, had first been recorded acoustically; after hearing Dylan’s early electrified songs, Columbia Records Columbia Records
Record labels;Columbia , the label of both Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel, added drums and electric guitars to the song.

Although Dylan’s entering and lyrically transforming the genre of rock, as symbolized by his appearance at the Newport Folk Festival, has generally been given most attention, his influence on popular music since the mid-1960’s has been even more pervasive than that would suggest. When he recorded the album John Wesley Harding, for example, he helped initiate another new trend, “country rock,” a genre that eventually would include such seminal artists as the Flying Burrito Brothers and such popular ones as the Eagles. The artists sometimes dubbed “singer-songwriters” (Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, and Jackson Browne among them) in the early 1970’s often seemed to be defined by how they were like or unlike Dylan. The word “Dylanesque” became an unavoidable part of the rock lexicon; it could be applied to any artist with a gift for writing intelligent, dreamlike, or provocative lyrics.

Any artist sufficiently Dylanesque was touted by a record company or reviewer as a new Bob Dylan. Among them were Loudon Wainwright III, John Prine, and Bruce Springsteen Springsteen, Bruce . (One reviewer dryly greeted a Dylan release in the late 1970’s with a headline asking “Is Dylan the New Bruce Springsteen?”) Leonard Cohen was the Canadian Bob Dylan; Patti Smith was the female Dylan. The Dylan influence on 1970’s and 1980’s artists as different as Elvis Costello (with his intense, literate, and angry lyrics) and Dire Straits (with their lyrics and singing style both reminiscent of Dylan’s) is unmistakable.

The instrumentation that Dylan had serendipitously stumbled upon at Newport and in the recording sessions for Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde also was influential. He frequently employed a piano and Hammond organ in addition to electric and acoustic guitars. This full sound, allowing a greater variety of moods and textures than rock and roll’s typical guitar sound, was to be heard in the influential work of the Band Band, the (musical group) (beginning with its 1967 album Music from Big Pink), Music from Big Pink (the Band) a group that had toured and recorded with Dylan between 1965 and 1967 before recording its own work. The sound also appeared in the early recordings of Rod Stewart and on the influential album Layla (1971), by Eric Clapton’s Derek and the Dominoes band. The keyboards-plus-guitars combination later formed the cornerstone of the 1970’s and 1980’s sounds of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Bob Seger, and Bruce Springsteen—all of whom freely admit their debt to Dylan in their songwriting as well.

It was Bruce Springsteen who inducted Bob Dylan into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on January 20, 1988. “Bob freed your mind the way Elvis freed your body,” he said, and “changed the face of rock and roll forever. . . . To this day, wherever great rock music is being made, there is the shadow of Bob Dylan.” Music;electrified instruments
Guitars, electric
Folk rock
Rock and roll
Newport Folk Festival

Further Reading

  • Cott, Jonathan. Dylan. Garden City, N.J.: Rolling Stone Press, 1984. An oversized book featuring a fine collection of photographs, including one of Dylan onstage at Newport with the Butterfield band. Cott’s text is informative, providing both biographical details and critical commentary; he quotes from Dylan’s songs and relates them to other music and literature. Contains a Dylan discography through 1983.
  • Heylin, Clinton. Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades. New York: Summit Books, 1991. Deals extensively with Dylan’s life and career after 1970 in addition to earlier years. Heylin includes lengthy quotations from many who have known Dylan and comments on earlier biographies. Interesting section on Newport, with quotes from eyewitnesses. Excellent notes, bibliography, glossary of interviewees, discography (including dates and songs of recording sessions), and index. Photographs.
  • Marqusee, Mike. Wicked Messenger: Bob Dylan and the 1960’s. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005. A revised and expanded version of the author’s Chimes of Freedom, this book details the political songs and cultural impact of Dylan. Bibliographic references, discography, webology, and index.
  • Scaduto, Anthony. Bob Dylan: An Intimate Biography. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1971. The first serious book-length biography of Dylan. Especially valuable for quotations and anecdotes on Dylan’s early years (contains a twenty-page interview with singer and Dylan paramour Joan Baez), although some events have been questioned by later writers. Dated, as biographical information ends at 1969. Photographs, discography (to 1970), and a brief index.
  • Shelton, Robert. No Direction Home. New York: William Morrow, 1986. Biography by a music critic and Dylan friend. In 1961, Shelton wrote a laudatory review in The New York Times that helped make Dylan a success. Focuses primarily on the years up to 1970. Well written and informative, although Shelton’s association with Dylan sometimes colors his view of events.
  • Thomson, Elizabeth, and David Gutman, eds. The Dylan Companion. New York: Da Capo Press, 2001. Compilation of writings about Dylan by many of the most influential people in the music world, including musicians Bruce Springsteen and Joan Baez, critics Greil Marcus and Lester Bangs, and beat poet Allen Ginsberg. Bibliographic references, discography, index.

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