Seeger, Dylan and Newport 1965: Myth and Truth

Wednesday, 29 January 2014 06:12 AM Written by 

One of the lasting myths regarding Pete Seeger involves his reaction to Bob Dylan's notorious "electric" appearance at the July, 1965 Newport Folk Festival. 

The Cliff Notes version is Dylan, whose latest album Bringing It All Back Home had upset many folk purists with its amplified accompaniment, performed at Newport on July 25 with amplified backing by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, who played the festival on their own. 

As an offended audience booed Dylan performing with Butterfield's band (minus Butterfield himself), an incensed Seeger, outraged at his friend's apostasy, wanted the audio shut off and sought an axe to cut the cables as Dylan and the band ripped through "Maggie's Farm" and "Like A Rolling Stone," Dylan's just-released single.

You can hear bits and pieces of his performances on this promotional video for the 2007 DVD The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan Live At the Newport Folk Festival 1963-1965.   Filmed by Murray Lerner, the disc includes Dylan's performance for all three years.  He also filmed other Newport performers (including Johnny Cash, who was there in 1964) for his documentary Festival!  

Dylan can be seen in 1965 and at 1:14.  on a 1964 performance of "Mr. Tambourine Man," with Seeger sitting to the right.

The axe bit makes a good story. And there's no "reportedly" about it. Seeger did threaten to cut the cables. 

But since it's not the whole story, as many have heard it, the tale as told and retold over the past 49 years by so many, is a highly misleading crock of sh*t.

Amplified acts played Newport before. Cash and the Tennessee Three were there in 1964. In 1965, the Butterfield band and the Chambers Brothers, then a gospel act, were present.

Who got the Chambers Brothers on the Newport bill? Pete Seeger.

Dylan did an acoustic workshop performance at Newport on July 24th without incident.  On the evening of the 25th, he kicked off with the two amplified tunes, then finished with two acoustic numbers. Yes, sanctimonious jackasses at Newport contemptuous of rock and convinced acoustic music superior booed and jeered at Newport. You can hear them on the DVD.  In fact the hostility was even worse at Dylan concerts after Newport when he toured with the Hawks, who became The Band.

But for much of the Newport '65 audience, the problem was not music, but an horrific sound system unsuited for amplified bands. Today's state of the art stage audio simply did not exist in 1965.  What then existed was a glorified, old-school PA system not up to the task.

You don't hear this on the DVD.  Lerner's audio for Dylan's electric and acoustic performances is quite good.  If the audience had heard it, it would have been fine.  What the Newport crowd, Seeger included, heard out front, was horribly distorted. It's likely the bad sound upset Dylan amplified fans. In any case he left the stage and returned to finish acoustic, with "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue."

Let Seeger tell the rest of the story. There is one lapse.  He mentions Howlin' Wolf playing the day before Dylan, but he's probably referring to the Chambers Brothers.  Wolf's Newport appearance didn't come until Newport 1966. 

Works for me.


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