His traditional acoustic guitar and harmonica had been the only background he needed for his biting social commentaries and introspective ballads.
Up to this time, the only electrification that folk purists acknowledged to be necessary was the microphone and amplification system that allowed the singer to be heard by the crowds. The sounds of electric guitar were considered to be the grinding, pounding, distorted creation of materialistic sell-outs whose drivel-filled lyrics were the perfect fluff to match the beat-heavy, gyrating, obnoxious commercialism being created by those in early 1960s rock ‘n roll.
In their defense, the radio in 1965 was primarily emitting songs with repetitive, superficial puppy-love lyrics accompanied by catchy, pop tunes in a formulaic structure. Songs like “Help Me Rhonda” by the Beach Boys, “Stop, in the Name of Love” by the Supremes, “Eight Days A Week” by the Beatles, and “In the Midnight Hour” by Wilson Pickett not only filled the airwaves with entertainment value, but completely ignored the topical struggles of America in 1965.
When Dylan walked onstage with the Butterfield Blues Band and plugged in his electric guitar to an amplifier, the musical world shook. Disbelief turned into confusion which evolved into boos from the audience. Though his short song set included Dylan classics like “Maggie’s Farm,” the audience interpreted Dylan’s move as more than just a complete rejection of everything they believed, they took it as a personal affront against their collective being. After his initial shock, Pete Seeger, an early champion of Dylan’s, ran around backstage looking for a plug to pull or at least an ax to sever cables in order to save the sanctity of folk music from the madness electrical.
In the days following the Festival, Dylan found that although the folk audiences rejected him, his true friends – his fellow musicians – accepted his decision, even if they didn’t immediately understand it.
As is often the case, one action had two consequences. Although he was rejected by one audience, he began almost immediately to cultivate another. His relationship with rock ‘n roll musicians started to take on a deepening influence to the point that a new, more thoughtful and intelligent wave of lyrics became the standard in rock ‘n roll music.
Of particular interest was his friendship with the Beatles. Immediately prior to Newport, the Beatles had hits with “Help” and “Yesterday” – two important examples of the early Beatles light-rock, pop ballad sound. It was very possible that their friendship and interactions with Dylan might have contributed to them moving into a more intellectual and thoughtful period. Their 1966 album Rubber Soul abandoned the popish fluff of the early era and introduced songs like “Eleanor Rigby,” “Taxman,” “Paperback Writer,” and the experimental “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
Beatles’ Paul McCartney tells of taking a copy of their next effort, St. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band around to the London hotel where Bob Dylan was staying.
“I went round like I was going on a pilgrimage. Keith Richards [of the Rolling Stones] was in the outer room and we had to hang around and then went in to meet Dylan. It was a little bit like an audience with the Pope. I remember playing him some of St. Pepper and he said, “Oh, I get it—you don’t want to be cute any more.” That was the feeling about Rubber Soul, too. We’d had our cute period and now it was time to expand.” (The Beatles: Anthology, p. 197)
Dylan’s first album release following Newport was Highway 61 Revisited which began with the quintessential Dylan song “Like a Rolling Stone” complete with electric guitars, drums, and electronic organ. Folk-Dylan was dead; rock-Dylan was alive and well.
Over the next nearly forty years, Dylan would release nearly 50 albums, be inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame, and win several Grammys, including four in 1998 for “Time Out of Mind.” The list of artists who have shared the stage or studio with Dylan is almost endless and includes such names as Santana, The Grateful Dead, The Band, George Harrison, Tom Petty, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Elton John, and Willie Nelson.
An analysis of all Dylan’s albums would be a monumental task – far greater than what can be accomplished here. It might be more concise to view his output in terms of eras of time. Following the folk era and the folk-rock era when the metaphors in his lyrics danced dangerously close to incoherence, a motorcycle accident in 1966 put him in the hospital for a period of time; it took him away from touring, but not the studio, for seven years. While recuperating in Woodstock at the communal house and studio of The Band, Dylan and the group recorded over 150 songs,
which were released in bootleg form a few years later as The Basement Tapes.
The rise of the country-rock movement in 1970 coincided with Dylan’s 1969 release Nashville Skyline, which was produced entirely in Nashville, known as “Music City, U.S.A.,” with country session players and country artists like Johnny Cash joining him on some cuts.
Through the rest of the 1970s and 1980s Dylan’s output remained constant if unpredictable. His set at George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh and subsequent appearances at 1985’s musical fund/awareness raisers: Live-Aid (for famine relief in Africa) and Farm-Aid (for American farmers losing their land), confirmed his popularity and artistry as a live performer. His conversion to Christianity in 1979 resulted in two albums, Slow Train Coming and Saved, but by the ‘80s he had resumed his mantle as combination angry poet and heartbroken balladeer.
In 1991 he released The Bootleg Collection, an amazing assemblage of 58 songs which are out-takes, alternative takes and Dylan throwaway songs. Far from mediocrity, they show the artistry and creative process of Dylan, the mature musician.
Throughout the 1990s Dylan continued to record new work and release compilations of earlier sessions. His recent albums, beginning with Love and Theft in 2001, continue Dylan’s output in a lifetime of eclectic collections of songs, incorporating blues, country, folk, pop and rock idioms into one package.