The Mountain Times

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The day that folk music died

Photos submitted

Let us cut to the chase my friends, July 25, 1965 was the day that Minnesota native and New York coffeehouse transplant Robert Zimmerman took the stage at the Newport Folk Festival, plugged in his sunburst Fender Stratocaster into a 100 watt Twin Reverb and changed the landscape of music forever.

Oh and by the way, he had already changed his name to Bob Dylan by this point.

Folk music had taken over the counter-culture since the mid-fifties with acts such as the Weavers (featuring Pete Seeger), Peter, Paul and Mary, Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Dave Van Ronk, Joan Baez, and Odetta. This acoustic-driven music was inspired by colossal talent Woody Guthrie, and to a lesser degree black bluesman Leadbelly.

Their music was also known as "protest music" way before Dylan's "hard rain had come" and the subculture that had developed around it was intensely loyal to their heroes. In the summer of 1965 there was no bigger hero that Bob Dylan.

The Newport Folk Festival was started by promotor George Wein in 1959 as a sister festival to the already immensely popular Newport Jazz Festival. The mostly white "folk musicians" were joined onstage at the NFF by many great black blues musicians. Most of these legendary bluesman were "rediscovered" by the promotors, and were given a heroes welcome by the mostly young white crowd, as they had grown up on the records these great men and women had made in the late '20s and throughout the '30s.

One of the other darlings of the Newport Folk scene was Joan Baez, and it was Baez herself that dragged the young Dylan onstage in 1963 to introduce him to the crowd. Dylan returned in 1964, armed only with his Martin guitar (the same model played by Woody Guthrie), but this time he was on the brink of superstardom. So you can imagine the anticipation when their hero returned on that balmy day in July of 1965. Dylan knew that he would be breaking a tradition that no electric guitars had been cranked up on the that stage since the festivals inception in 1959. Bob Dylan also knew that he had to placate the crowd by playing the first part of his set acoustically, which he did.

Leone -Legend -Dylan -pic -photo

Film footage of this show documents Dylan's nervous and inconsistent acoustic set. I'm sure the fact that there were drums and a few guitar amps set up on the stage, added to the intensity of the vibe of the crowd.

But it was when Dylan retook the stage accompanied by guitar legend Mike Bloomfield and members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band that the crowd turned against him. Boo's and jeers rang out, and almost stopped the show, but Dylan forged on after a few choice words for the less then curteous crowd.

It wasn't so much that Dylan had brought the dreaded electric guitar onstage, the same stage that Mahalia Jackson had sung on, it was the fact that the crowd, and folk fans all over the world finally had one of their own becoming a superstar. This was the knife in the back, that in one fell swoop brought folk music from the brink of crossover success back to the coffeehouses for good. And in a final ironic turn the only folk music you could find on tv by the 60s was on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

As we all know Bob Dylan went on to become the most influential and controversial American songwriter in the rock era, which means his risk at the Newport was really no risk at all. It can also be argued tha his set at Newport in 1965 blazed a trail for the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, and of course the Woodstock Festival in 1969, but it also was the "Day Folk Music Died."

Tagged: Leone's Legends, Bob Dylan