The beatnik crowd at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival sat patiently under the boon of the summer sun. They eagerly awaited the arrival of Bob Dylan like pilgrims in a promised land confident that a six-stringed miracle was handily scheduled in for their adoring eyes to behold. Bob Dylan was the messiah of folk music and even Joan Baez was announcing him as such, but in one swooping electric middle finger, Dylan went from Jesus to Judas to the backbeat of a fuzz pedalled hum.
Although reports from the day vary wildly from mild tales of a few disgruntled purists amidst a largely appreciative crowd, to stories of a ‘Judas’-crying lynch mob, there is no doubting that it was a move that upset many.
A few months later, in 1966, he played a UK tour whereby the first half of his set was solo acoustic and for the second half he was joined on stage by his band for an electric finale. “A year ago, I saw him at the City Hall,” one fan declared, “And I thought he was magnificent, I thought he couldn’t improve if he tried. Then the next thing that happened is he went really commercial with this backing group and I didn’t like that very much. […] I think he’s prostituting himself.” And another fan simply added, “Bob Dylan was a bastard in the second half.”
Hindsight has rendered the idea of Bob Dylan succumbing to some sort of popular demand absolutely ludicrous, he is an artist who conforms to standards about as much as dark matter and going electric was only the first signpost on a road that continues to zig and zag forevermore. However, that still hasn’t stopped the moment he went electric going down in history. And in a simple twist of fate, the reviled guitar itself has a mystical folklore backstory of its own.
The course of cultural history-changing guitar was a simple and humble 1964 Fender Stratocaster with a standard sunburst finish. Aside from that, nothing about its existence was ordinary. Not only did it change history on that fateful day, but thereafter it would craft its own separate subplot.
After the show at the Newport Folk Festival, Dylan boarded a light aircraft flown by Victor Quinto who used to shepherd folk acts to and from the festival in the 1960s. When Dylan disembarked from the Quinto’s plane, he erroneously left the Strat behind. Quinto spotted that Dylan had left his guitar and took it home with him that evening to ensure that it wasn’t stolen when another pilot got behind the joystick. When at home Quinto contacted Dylan’s management to make them aware of the mix-up and they replied that somebody would stop by to pick it up.
Years passed and nobody from Dylan’s management arrived to retrieve the guitar, and so, Quinto stored it away in his attic where it remained for decades following his untimely death. Then in 2002 his daughter, Dawn Peterson, rediscovered it, blew off the dust and brought it over to her own home. Years later a friend mentioned to her that it could be the same guitar that her father mentioned Dylan had left behind after the Newport Folk Festival.
This prompted Peterson to reach out to a PBS television show called History Detectives. The show made contact with a guitar gear expert, Andy Babiuk, and asked him to cast his expert eye over the Strat.
Andy Babiuk analysed every detail of the guitar and compared it with all known photographs that he could find of Dylan playing at the festival. Using wood grain analysis he declared that he was 99.9% certain that Strat he examined was the very same one that Dylan played when he made the seismic shift to sonic modernity.
At this stage in the story, Dylan’s management finally made good on their word and got involved. His lawyers claimed that Dylan in fact still had the Strat from the day in his possession and that this was actually another electric model that he had stolen from him around the same time as the festival.
Despite this dismissal from his legal team, the guitar that they allege to be the genuine one was never offered up for examination to ratify the claims. Thus, for many people, Babiuk’s expert assessment and the accompanying photographic evidence remained convincing enough that it was not only plausible but the probable explanation regarding the fate of Dylan’s hated and now much-debated Strat. One anonymous buyer was so convinced by Babiuk’s assessment that he purchased the guitar for $965,000, making it the most expensive guitar ever auctioned at the time. Included with the guitar was the original case, handwritten lyrics, drawings and photographs.
If guitars could talk then Dylan’s axe would surely have one hell of a tale to tell. If Babiuk’s verdict is to be believed then it went from vilified to abandoned only to make history once again decades later.
Regardless, of whether the genuine Strat remains in the folk stars possession or it was purchased at auction for a record fee, Dylan’s defiant electric middle finger to Amish-Esque folk standards scintillatingly coupled lyrical introspection with the visceral edge of rock ‘n’ roll and earmarked a crystalising moment for musicians that success was not something to be perused, you simply gathered it up in your boundary-pushing wake.
What followed that fateful Strat-clad day at Newport when the masterful minds of Bob Dylan and Thomas Edison met, was a trilogy of mostly electric records: Bring It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, and despite a slew of fans turning their backs on his ‘turncoat antics’ each of those albums is in with a shout of being crowned the greatest of all time. The rest, as they say, is ancient history.