Listen to a pre-fame Bob Dylan sing 'Madhouse on Castle Street' in first ever TV performance
(Credit: Bob Dylan)

The Birth of Bob Dylan: The iconic moment Dylan goes electric

By July of 1965, twenty-four-year-old Bob Dylan seemed to be in the middle of a major transition to anyone who was looking. He had just released Bringing It All Back Home four months prior, an album that was a break from his previous releases. Half of the songs on the album were in the familiar and comfortable style featuring Dylan on an acoustic guitar and harmonica with minimal backing, while the other half featured him on an electric guitar with an electric band backing him.

Two years prior, in 1963, Dylan was invited to play in the acclaimed Newport Folk Festival in Newport, Rhode Island, an event organised by Pete Seeger to parallel the already famous Newport Jazz Festival. Dylan, relatively unknown at the time, found himself backed at one point by Peter Paul and Mary, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and The Freedom Singers as they sang his newly released song, ‘Blowin in the Wind’, a defiant song that stood tall in opposition to the American war industry. This immediately catapulted him into folk superstardom in America and seemed to map out the trajectory of his young career as the “voice of a generation”.

There was just one problem, Dylan never wanted any of that. It made him uncomfortable to be nailed down to something that he saw as extremely restrictive to someone as multifaceted as himself. Add to the equation Dylan’s blossoming friendship with Allen Ginsburg which—directly or indirectly—steered his lyrics from abstract concepts of civil disobedience into introspective yet surreal landscapes with veiled meanings at best. His latest album seemed to be leaning more in the direction of blues than folk. It seemed as though Dylan was on the edge of major change.

America in the mid-’60s was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the war in Vietnam as the civil rights movement was beginning to wind down. John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, a matter of months before the Beatles came to America. Americans were struggling to find an identity but seemed to have a voice in Bob Dylan. After his monumental performance in ’63, Dylan returned to the Newport Folk Festival in 1964. Ronnie Gilbert of The Weavers introduced him to the crowd saying, “And here he is… take him, you know him, he is yours.” Seemingly, this pissed Dylan off. In his memoirs Chronicles, he reflects on that introduction, saying: “What a crazy thing to say! Screw that. As far as I knew, I didn’t belong to anybody then or now.” His next release was the aforementioned Bringing It All Back Home, properly setting the stage for the legendary Newport Folk Festival of 1965.

The idea to go electric at Newport happened quite organically the day before the performance took place. The musicians met up for a series of workshops as was customary. When noted field music archivist and music historian Alan Lomax introduced The Paul Butterfield Blues Band in a less than favourable manner, Dylan took notice and offence. He had had enough. He decided on the spot to flip everything upside-down by plugging in for his performance. Dylan assembled a small band and borrowed a local mansion to rehearse in for a few hours on that Saturday night. No one had any idea what was to transpire the following evening.

The same weekend of the ’65 festival saw President Johnson vowing to keep America in the Vietnam War until we “accomplished victory”. Americans were beginning to notice the communal feeling of the first half of the decade slipping away and were looking to Bob Dylan to hold it all together. Those who attended the festival took solace in the company of other folkies, but longed to be led by the songs and thoughts of Bob Dylan.

The crew at the festival were confused by the gear assembled on the stage for the Dylan set that night, but I doubt the audience even noticed. Dylan was introduced by MC Peter Yarrow and was greeted with thunderous applause. He came out in all black with a Fender Stratocaster and did the unthinkable; with all of the folk legends and fans waiting eagerly, Bob Dylan plugged in. In the ultimate act of defiance, Dylan launched into ‘Maggie’s Farm’, a new song which could have been written as a protest song for anyone living in an unjust situation, but by singing it at the Newport Folk Festival, he seemed to be saying that he was done being restricted by folk music as a whole, specifically in the lines:

“I got a head full of ideas
That are drivin’ me insane.”

And further in…

“Well I try my best
To be just like I am
But everybody wants you
To be just like them
They sing while they slave and I just get bored.”

Immediately an overwhelming chorus of boos were hurled at the stage. Music writer Greil Marcus described the scene: “There was anger, there was fury, there was applause, there was stunned silence, but there was a great sense of betrayal. As if something precious and delicate was being dashed to the ground and stomped. As if the delicate flower of folk music, the priceless heritage of impoverished black farmers and destitute white miners, was being mocked by a dandy, with a garish noisy electric guitar, who was going to make huge amounts of money as a pop star by exploiting what he found from these poor people.”

The second song of this historic set, which was a song released just five days earlier, didn’t help matters. ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ had Dylan asking the crowd:

“How does it feel to be on your own?”

The song was met with an even louder chorus of boos. If Dylan was affected by this display of disapproval, it does not show in the tape of the performance at all. He then went into ‘It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry’ and left the stage altogether, much to the dismay of the audience. Peter Yarrow clambered back to the microphone in front of an irate crowd clearly quite shaken and said, “Bobby will do another song I am sure if you call him back,” before turning off stage a pleading: “Bobby can you do another song please.” At one point a visibly shaken Yarrow rubbed his eyes in frustration as Dylan fumbled around for a guitar.

Dylan did indeed return to the stage alone with his acoustic guitar to the great delight of the audience and played the appropriate ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’. Clearly he was not planning on playing any acoustic songs that night as he had to ask the audience for a harmonica in the right key. A comical moment, really, when you hear multiple harmonicas violently smack onto the stage. But the audience was not laughing about what seemed to have just taken place, Bob Dylan turned his back on folk music.

The impact was immediately felt by Dylan who began recording ‘Positively 4th Street’ four days after going electric. The song expresses paranoia and can be interpreted as a put-down of former friends from the folk community, people he knew from time spent in clubs along West 4th street in the Village with lines like:

“You’ve got a lotta nerve to say you are my friend,
When I was down you just stood there grinning.
You got a lotta nerve to say you’ve got a helping hand to lend,
You just want to be on the side that’s winning.
You say I let you down you know it’s not like that,
If you’re so hurt why then don’t you show it?”

Touring in the year following Newport ’65 offered Dylan no solace. Considering his audience, he split his show into two sets; one acoustic and one electric. This did not appease the crowd who seemed more interested in heckling Dylan than seeing him play at all. Things hit rock bottom by the time his tour reached England when one fan screamed out “Judas” evoking a reaction from Dylan on the stage. The pressure began to mount for Dylan as he became more combative in interviews. He was tired of explaining his change in musical style. He began to retreat from the limelight as much as he was able.

On July 29, 1966, it is claimed that Dylan was in a serious motorcycle accident although no ambulance was called and he never went to a hospital. This afforded him the time to rest from his many demands, and also started the reclusiveness that he has since become famous for. The Bob Dylan that we have come to know and love had finally been born.

Subscribe to our newsletter
Delivering curated content