“Folk,” Bob Dylan once said, “is just a bunch of fat people.” And as the director Ethan Coen added: “That kind of disavowing the shit that you actually love is interesting and really real and human.” Dylan, indeed, did love folk, that much is flagrantly obvious given the career he has had. However, as Coen also stated, “The folk scene was defined largely by the worship for authenticity,” and Dylan wasn’t going to be held back by time-honoured traditions when timelessness was at stake.
He also wasn’t going to be held back by a bizarre sense of ownership. As the fellow once said, “Take him, you know him, he’s yours.” And Dylan boldly responded with a Fender in eyeshot: “What a crazy thing to say! Screw that. As far as I knew, I didn’t belong to anybody then or now.”
Thus, when the beatnik crowd at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 sat patiently under the summer sun, an electric storm was brewing. All was heavenly and peaceful as hopeful spectators awaited the arrival of the man who had been crowned king—a punk of only 24 years named Bob Dylan. The only thing that could possibly upset the peace, love and acoustic harmony, is if some daft punk went and disavowed the Amish standards of folk authenticity and plugged in.
The elements that made him go electric might have been myriad, but according to Eric Burdon of The Animals, one song proved to be a tipping point. The times were a-changing and Dylan was too, by no means was this the only rock anthem that turned Dylan’s head, but given that Greenwich Village was absolutely mad about authenticity the great leap Dylan made can’t be underestimated and the sound of folk colliding with fuzz in helped to bridge the abyss.
In true timeless folk tradition, the electric hit that stirred Dylan is also not an original from The Animals but a mythical classic from time immemorial. “There was a connection that went on between the Animals and Bob, and our recording of ‘The Rising Sun,’” Animals frontman Eric Burdon says. “I’ve been told by lots of people who know, and were around at the time, that that’s what stimulated Bob into going electric, and becoming a rock star as opposed to a folk star.”
Burdon continues: “You might say we were all exposed — when I say ‘all of us,’ I mean the same age group on both sides of the Atlantic — we were exposed to the root of true black music at the same time, and realized that that was the road that we wanted to take.”
It is the opinion of the rafter-rattling frontman, based on what he has heard from others in the industry, that if Dylan thought the wise wherewithal of folk tales could be paired with the raucous cutting edge of rock ‘n’ roll as effectively as the Animals had paired them then who cares about appeasing the so-called gatekeepers of genre standards.
Soon he was yelling the future home. As Robbie Robertson said of playing ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ on the subsequent electric tour, “He was so thin. He was singing louder and stronger than James Brown. We were in a battlefield on that tour, and you had to fight back.” Now, the naysayers are remembered as nothing other than daft while ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ is a definitive anthem and one of the definitive great American works of art.