2015 marks the 50th anniversary of Bob Dylan’s historic performance at the Newport (Rhode Island) Jazz Festival in 1965. Every biography of Dylan and most histories of Rock or pop music have emphasized the importance of this noisy and much disputed occasion. Analyzing the event as an example of cultural change and the energy sources that make such changes possible enables us not only to understand it, but also to appreciate Dylan’s song-writing genius more profoundly.
At Newport — and subsequently in his British concert tour later that same year — Dylan for the first time played and sang with a Band and electric guitars. Since he had formerly been celebrated as a leader in the early 1960s folk-singing renaissance of acoustic guitars accompanying the voices of single singers or groups, the usual accounts tell us simply that the uproar was due to Dylan’s “going electric” — a typical instance of the widespread fallacy of attempting to account for cultural change exclusively in terms of technology. ,
Much of the misunderstanding of this event originated from misconstruing the motives of folk-singing legend Pete Seeger when he went backstage and threatened to cut the cables conveying the sound of the Band. Fortunately Seeger was able to refute these erroneous accounts in an interview shortly before his death. He explained that he had nothing against electric guitars, in fact he had sung and played with them himself occasionally, even though he preferred acoustic instruments. The reason he went backstage was simply because having been in the noisy and restive audience he realized that the sound balance was not right; he went backstage to plead with the technicians to turn down the volume of the electric guitars. When they refused (undoubtedly being the first to misconstrue his motives), he threatened to get an axe and cut the cables — without actually intending to do any such thing, but wishing to emphasize the importance of reducing the volume. So far from opposing the new sound, Seeger was concerned to make it possible for the audience to hear it properly.
Nevertheless, the audience was in an uproar, some positively, others decidedly not. Such a response marked a sharp contrast with Dylan’s previous reception, which might be described as worshipful. The contrast was heightened when Dylan took the same music and its instrumentation on a tour of British concert halls. The most dramatic exchange is recorded:
“Judas!” a British voice rings out from the audience.
Clearly shaken by the taunt, “I don’t believe you”, Dylan replies.
So what was the uproar about? Were some members of the audiences at Newport and on the British tour really so incensed over the choice of instruments? Or were they recognizing a more significant cultural change?
Some would explain the events in terms of the conventions of the genres of pop music. By singing with an electronic band, they would say, Dylan had abandoned the conventions of the ’60s folk-singing revival, which had depended on the human voice alone or in groups, accompanied only by an acoustic guitar, if at all. Slightly more sophisticated than the technological explanation, this approach exemplifies the equally widespread error of attempting to explain cultural change exclusively as a function of style and genres.
In fact, real cultural change is always about content — and the change in the content of Dylan’s songs before and after Newport was clear and plain for all to hear, and is even easier for us to recognize today, having enjoyed his music for over half a century. Prior to Newport Dylan had been identified with what were called “protest songs” — “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “The Ballad of Hattie Carroll” and many more. He had also written and performed exquisite love songs, ballads and blues, but it was these memorable anthems of the culture of transformation that had made his reputation, not only in the media but equally among his audiences.
At Newport, and subsequently on the British tour, Dylan opened not just with new instruments and a new sound, but with very different content:
“How does it feel,” his chorus insistently asks, “to be on your own, a complete unknown, no direction home, like a rolling stone?”
The content of “Like a Rolling Stone” and so many of the great songs that came with and after it is very different from the protest songs that preceded it. The world of these songs is not one in which the times are changing; they paint a highly colourful and imaginatively animated landscape (that has been compared to Rimbaud, among others) where isolated individuals strive for personal fulfillment. As before, Dylan continued to write and perform evocative love songs, blues and ballads. But it is this isolated figure in a near-surreal landscape that characterizes the content of the songs that were now identified with him — “Desolation Row”, “Positively Fourth Street”, “To be stuck here inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues again.”
Audiences at Newport and on the British tour that followed recognized that Dylan had abandoned the culture of transformation and was now writing and singing within the culture of consumption, in which people are seen not as potential agents of change, but as individual consumers, isolated from each other and from the environment around them. Only occasionally, as in his angry “Hurricane” about the unjustly imprisoned black boxer, would Dylan return to the protest mode. Despite the many changes in genre and even in religious subject matter, the content of Dylan’s music since Newport has confirmed his position (along with Andy Warhol) as a genius of the culture of consumption. He is singular in being equally recognized for his powerful statements in the culture of transformation as well. He has given us masterpieces in the two defining cultures of the twentieth century.
In Art & Energy: How Culture Changes (The AAM Press, 2014) I have shown how electrification inspired the culture of transformation by giving us confidence in our ability to change the world, seeing ourselves and others as potential agents of change. The book also shows how oil and gas stimulated the culture of consumption, where we are encouraged to behave as credit-card-carrying consumers, isolated from each other and from the environment in which we are shopping. The decade in which oil and gas were replacing coal globally as the fuel on which we were (and remain) dependent is the 1960s. Bob Dylan started writing songs at the beginning of the ’60s, when the Civil Rights Movement and the spreading campaign against the US war in Vietnam were stimulating a resurgence of the culture of transformation, accompanied by protest songs. But by 1965 this sensitive but maturing young artist (now 24) recognized that in order to sing with authenticity he needed to compose and perform a new kind of song — like a rolling stone. As Warhol had shown a few years earlier, the culture of consumption had arrived.
As always, the artist did not, could not and need not articulate the reasons for this cultural change, nor could his audience. But as the lyrics of one of Dylan’s most perceptive (and aggressive) songs of this period observes, something was happening, even if Mr. Jones didn’t know what it was.