Everyone knows what happened thirty-seven years ago when Bob Dylan fronted an electric band at the Newport Folk Festival, which is why August 3 saw 100 scribes from all over the country merging into a crowd of 10,000, inching by vehicle and foot through the narrow, tourist-choked streets of the former center of the triangle slave trade, now known for its wealthy “cottages,” while others rode water ferries from the sailboats and powerboats anchored like ducklings around a mammoth cruise ship, sandwiched by the graceful suspension bridge connecting Newport to the mainland and Fort Adams. The pentagonal sandstone bastion with the recessed barred windows, built to protect Narragansett Bay in the nineteenth century, backed the big stage. At 5:30 pm, to a standing and expectant sea of sun-soaked bodies who’d been hearing Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” and “Rodeo” pumped over the PA, half an hour late but right on time, the short guy in the silver shirt and black suit with the fake beard and wig topped by a tall white Stetson bounded onstage with his four black-clad bandmates. A punchy acoustic string-band version of an old folk blues called “Roving Gambler” got started. At 61, Dylan had returned to the scene of the crime.
Or maybe he hadn’t, and not just because of Heraclitus, with whom Dylan would surely agree about feet and the same river twice. For the assembled multitude who had come to the fabled rock where the prophet had stood and been dishonored, it was, as it should have been, an Event; they made the biggest one-day crowd the festival’s had in years. For the enigmatic bard himself, his Cassandra streak and razor wit evident again after years of trying to banish or submerge them, his restless decades-long quest for something to believe in, in an implacable universe, transformed by his art into an uneven but awesome legacy crucial to American popular culture (forty-plus albums, 500-plus songs, 200 days a year of roadburn), back in Newport and gunning his rapid-fire way through the two-hour set of revamped classics and breaking out into a periodic smile like Mona Lisa with the highway blues, it’s impossible to say. Is the shaman onstage for the umpteenth time more or less likely than we are to know or care what this specific moment is supposed to mean? Is it just another turn in the maze he runs outside the gates of Eden, looking for love, jubilation, transcendence, apocalypse, hope, death–an answer, an exit? How can you tell the dancer from the dance?
I’m only really myself when I’m onstage, Dylan has said.
As listeners snaked through the dozens of vendors’ stands and past the stages, they brushed against everything from traditional hill tunes to country and rock and the confessional singer-songwriter mode that is now, after Dylan, usually thought of as folk music. One early act on the main stage rammed home a Led Zeppelin cover. It’s far from the hallowed tale of 1965, where Dylan led musicians from the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the Blues Project, two early improvising rock groups, into a blistering version of “Like a Rolling Stone” that drew such furious booing they soon split the stage.
Myth can be more fun and sharper-sighted than history, and even, as Dylan the mythmaker knows, truer. Over the years, variant accounts of 1965 Newport have surfaced. The standard version ultimately comes from Pete Seeger, the keeper of the flame, who incessantly toured college campuses throughout the dark 1950s with the gospel of folk music learned from his father and Woody Guthrie, seeing it as the most valid expression of a truly popular culture: According to that take, the booing was loud, spontaneous and universal, as folk fans rejected Dylan’s contemptuous noise, demanded a return to the authentic, socially aware sounds he’d made his folkie bones with, songs like “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” But others have suggested that the booing came largely from backstage, from Seeger and his cohorts, shocked by what they saw as treason–or from fans complaining about the crummy sound system–or that there was no booing at all. Still others noted that Dylan had used electric instruments on his records; that on 1964’s Another Side of Bob Dylan he abandoned overt political protest for Brechtian parables about tortured love and striated life, thus bolting from the mission Seeger saw as central to contemporary folk music; that “Like a Rolling Stone” was hitting the charts across America and AM radio was bending its sacred three-minute limit to air it; that you would have to have been deaf indeed to have been shocked by what Dylan was up to at Newport.