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Music

Did Pete Seeger try to sabotage Bob Dylan’s electric set at the Newport Folk Festival?

@SamWKemp

In July 1965, Bob Dylan changed the course of popular music. Taking to the stage of the Newport Folk Festival on the first day of the event, he begrudgingly delivered an acoustic performance, just as he had in previous years. I imagine when he returned the next day, the audience was expecting the same blend of poetics and folk-balladry. What they got, however, was something quite different.

Backed by a band with electric instruments, Dylan broke into a rendition of ‘Maggie’s Farm’ at furious speed. The effect was startling. This man, who had been a spokesperson for the folk generation – who had embodied everything the ’60s folk boom aspired to – was now betraying the cause. The story goes that fellow folk musician and festival organiser Pete Seeger was so upset by Dylan’s rejection of folk aesthetics that he ran backstage in a fit of rage. Armed with a hatchet, it is alleged, Seeger was ready to cut the cord when some of the other organisers spotted him and managed to restrain him.

While it’s a good story, it is likely to untrue. Speaking in an interview just before his death, Seeger said: “It’s true that I don’t play electrified instruments, I don’t know how to. On the other hand, I’ve played with people who pay them beautifully and I admire some of them. Howlin’ Wolf was using electric instruments at Newport just a few days before Bob did.”

His issue, Seeger clarified, wasn’t with Dylan, but with the quality of the sound coming from the stage: “I was furious that the sound was so distorted that you could not hear a word that he [Dylan] was singing. He was singing a great song, ‘Maggie’s Farm’, but you couldn’t hear it. And I ran over to the sound man and said ‘fix the sound so they can understand him!’ And they hollered back ‘No, this is the way they want it!’ I don’t know who ‘they’ was. But I was so mad, I said: ‘Man, if I had an axe I’d cut the cable right now. I really was that mad.”

Seeger wasn’t alone. Contempt for Dylan defined his 1965-66 world tour, which culminated in a particularly tense show in Manchester’s Free Trade Hall, where one audience member stood and shouted “Judas!” for all to hear. The TV interviews with Dylan’s disappointed audience members reveal just how ready his former fanbase was to disown him. “He’s just changed altogether, he’s changed from what he was, he’s not the same as what he was at first,” one maligned fan declared, “We didn’t even recognise him”.

But, while Seeger was frustrated, he would never have actively sabotaged Dylan’s Newport set. “I wasn’t against Bob going electric,” he began. “Matter of fact, some of Bob’s songs are still favourites. What an artist he is. I’d say maybe he and Woody [Guthrie] and Buffy St Marie and Joni Mitchell and Malvina Reynolds are the greatest songwriters of the 21st century. Even though Irvin Berlin made the most money, they wrote songs that were trying to help us understand where we are and what we gotta’ do – still are writing them.”

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