It’s one of those questions you know your child is going to ask you sooner or later, and you wonder what sort of answer you will give when the time comes. Sure enough, the other day we were driving along and my daughter said, “Dad, why did they boo Dylan at Newport?”
“It wasn’t just at Newport,” I replied. “It was all over the world. People paid premium prices and packed stadiums just to boo Dylan and his band.”
“We traveled all over the world, and people booed us everywhere we went,” Robbie Robertson recalls. “What a strange concept of entertainment. We’d go on to the next town and they’d boo us again… all over the world!”
The Beatles thought Dylan was cool. When Columbia Records nearly cancelled his second album, who talked them out of it? The Man in Black, Johnny Cash, one of Dylan’s earliest fans. Dylan sang ‘When the Ship Comes In’ at the rally where Martin Luther King delivered his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, and Peter, Paul and Mary sang his song ‘Blowin in the Wind.’
But at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, when Dylan appeared onstage with an electric band, the crowd of diehard folkies booed them. Pete Seeger was seen wielding an axe, trying to cut the electric cable.
Now I credit Pete with standing up to Senator Joe McCarthy, even esteem him for that, but I would pay $200 or more to get out of attending a Pete Seeger concert, and I would pay $50 to avoid hearing him sing a single song, while Dylan’s electric albums, I have listened to hundreds and hundreds of times and still enjoy them.
That’s why I’m getting so much enjoyment from My Back Pages: Classic Bob Dylan 1962-69 by Andy Gill.
Dylan placated the Newport crowd by playing an acoustic set, but he played ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ and ‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue,’ two hybrid songs, later reccorded with electric instruments, that signaled his departure from acoustic protest songs, which a lot of people thought he should continue writing and singing, to the inspired orchestral poetic introspection he achieved in his greatest albums.
“Out front it was a sure thing,” Dylan said in an interview (quoted by Gill) with Nora Ephron and Susan Edmiston. “I knew what the audience was gonna do, how they would react. Your mind just drifts unless you can find some way to get in there and remain totally there.”
Then Gill quotes a remark Dylan made to an unnamed friend: “I play these concerts and I ask myself, ‘Would you come and see me tonight?’ — and I’d have to truthfully say, ‘No, I wouldn’t come. I’d rather be doing something else. I really would.’
“That something else is rock. That’s where it’s at for me. My words are pictures, and the rock’s going to help me flesh out the colors of the pictures.”
“Once upon a time you dressed so fine, threw the bums a dime, in your prime… Didn’t you? People called, said ‘Beware doll, you’re bound to fall,’ you thought they were all… kiddin’ you…”
So why did they boo Dylan at Newport? I still can’t answer that question.