When young folk sensation Bob Dylan took the stage on July 25, 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival, a crowd of nearly 100,000 waited expectantly. What nobody could have anticipated, however, was that by the time the set was over, Dylan would lose the support of many fans who had come to love him while simultaneously opening the floodgates to his career as a rock superstar.
It was during that concert, 45 years ago today, that Bob Dylan plugged in his electric guitar, an action that would alter the landscape of American popular music for generations to come. On that day, as boos, shouts and cries for “the old Dylan” rose above the music, Dylan departed from his acoustic roots and ventured into the realm of rock ‘n’ roll, a genre generally disdained as commercial and mainstream by Dylan’s bohemian peers of the 1960s American folk music revival. In doing this, the artist forged the way for the folk-rock genre, merging his lyrical songwriting style with the hard-driving sounds of rock.
Dylan started off in rock ‘n’ roll bands as a child, and first played folk music in coffeehouses when he began his studies at the University of Minnesota. His first recordings—Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, The Times They Are a-Changin’, and Another Side of Bob Dylan—all embodied the folk genre, with favorites such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” But in 1965, six months before the Newport Folk Festival, Dylan released Bringing It All Back Home, which featured a distinctly rock ‘n’ roll feel. Although some fans weren’t exactly thrilled by the stylistic shift, it wasn’t until the Newport Folk Festival that the full reality of Dylan’s new music set in.
There is much disagreement over why Dylan’s performance that day caused such uproar. Some—Dylan himself included—attribute a portion of the audience’s reaction to the poor sound quality of the performance. (Dylan was unable to do a sound check prior to taking the stage.) Some, like singer-actor Theodore Bikel, faulted Dylan for “making a tactical mistake” by not playing a few acoustic songs before picking up the electric guitar. Still others believed the media portrayed the crowd’s reaction as more hostile than it truly was. But while all of these theories may be valid in part, most agree that more than anything else, Dylan’s use of the electric guitar jeopardized the purity of the folk revival, which didn’t bode well for the future of American folk music.
In 1966—only one year after Dylan went electric at the Newport and subsequently recorded the rock anthem “Like a Rolling Stone”—artist Milton Glaser produced an iconic poster of Bob Dylan, which can be found in the collections of the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City. (The poster was featured in the June 2010 issue of Smithsonian Magazine.) Inspired by a silhouetted self-portrait by Marcel Duchamp, the poster depicts Dylan with rainbow hair contrasted by the black profile of his face. The psychedelic aesthetic of the poster is in keeping with a line of rock ‘n’ roll images that defined the era. While Dylan’s going electric may have initially made him into a pariah of the folk community, his move towards fusing folk with rock ‘n’ roll, beginning 45 years ago at the Newport Folk Festival, was perhaps the single move in his career that catapulted him to the far reaches of rock stardom.