Elijah Wald – Dylan Goes Electric!
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Elijah Wald started playing guitar at age 7, went to New York at age 17 to study with Dave Van Ronk, and spent much of the next twenty years hitchhiking and performing all over North America and Europe, as well as much of Asia and Africa, including several months studying with the Congolese guitar masters Jean-Bosco Mwenda and Edouard Masengo. He has worked as an accompanist to Van Ronk, Eric Von Schmidt, and the African American string band master Howard Armstrong, and recorded two solo albums: Songster, Fingerpicker, Shirtmaker and Street Corner Cowboys.

In the early 1980s Elijah began writing on roots and world music for the Boston Globe, publishing over a thousand pieces before he left in 2000, and his work has appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines. His dozen previous books include Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues; How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ’n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music; Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas; and The Mayor of MacDougal Street, a memoir with Dave Van Ronk that inspired the Coen Brothers' movie Inside Llewyn Davis. He has won a Grammy Award for his album notes to The Arhoolie Records 40th Anniversary Box, for which he was also nominated as a producer, and his books have won many awards, including an ASCAP-Deems Taylor award and an honorable mention for the American Musicological Society’s Otto Kinkeldey award. He has an interdisciplinary PhD in ethnomusicology and sociolinguistics, and taught for several years in the musicology department at UCLA. He is currently based near Boston, wrinting, traveling to speaking engagements around the US and abroad, and performing in a duo with his wife, clarinetist Sandrine Sheon.



One of the music world’s pre-eminent critics takes a fresh and much-needed look at the day Dylan “went electric” at the Newport Folk Festival—timed to coincide with the event’s fiftieth anniversary

On the evening of July 25, 1965, Bob Dylan took the stage at Newport Folk Festival backed by an electric band and roared into his new rock hit, Like a Rolling Stone. The audience of committed folk purists and political activists who had hailed him as their acoustic prophet reacted with a mix of shock, booing, and scattered cheers. It was the shot heard round the world—Dylan’s declaration of musical independence, the end of the folk revival, and the birth of rock as the voice of a generation—and one of the defining moments in twentieth-century music.

In Dylan Goes Electric!, Elijah Wald explores the cultural, political and historical context of this seminal event that embodies the transformative decade that was the sixties. Wald delves deep into the folk revival, the rise of rock, and the tensions between traditional and groundbreaking music to provide new insights into Dylan’s artistic evolution, his special affinity to blues, his complex relationship to the folk establishment and his sometime mentor Pete Seeger, and the ways he reshaped popular music forever.  Breaking new ground on a story we think we know, Dylan Goes Electric! is a thoughtful, sharp appraisal of the controversial event at Newport and a nuanced, provocative analysis of why it matters.


"a great work of scholarship, brimming with insight – among the best music books I have ever read."
--John Harris, The Guardian newspaper

"touchingly captures a period and a mood...a major contribution to modern musical history."
--Mark Levine, Booklist, starred review.

"splendid, colorful work of musicology and cultural history... Mr. Wald is a superb analyst of the events he describes."
--Janet Maslin, The New York Times

"excellent... a rich study of the clash between cultural authenticity and commercial success."
--Timothy Farrington, Wall St. Journal

"...one of the best music journalists around.... As told by Wald, the story of Dylan at Newport is not so much about music as it is about stories themselves, how they mesmerize even as they bumble along and don't always end cleanly. The truth is often messy. And usually that messiness makes for a better story."
--David Kirby, Washington Post

"What Wald reveals about that most mystified of singer-songwriters and the folk and rock worlds that then surrounded and elevated him changed my own view of a moment I thought I had all figured out -- and of the songwriterly 1960s as a whole."
--Ann Powers, chief pop critic of the Los Angeles Times and author of Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America.

more quotations


Myths and facts about the night Dylan went electric:

Myth: Before Dylan, the folk music establishment thought folksingers should only sing traditional songs.
Fact: Lots of pop-oriented folksingers were writing and singing new songs. Pete Seeger had written “Kisses Sweeter than Wine,” “If I Had a Hammer,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” and “Turn, Turn, Turn.” When Johnny Cash appeared at Newport in 1964, he described Dylan as “the best songwriter of the age, since Pete Seeger.” (p. 158)
Nuance: The fact that famous, popular singers were calling their compositions “folk songs” was irritating to a small clique of hardcore traditionalists in bohemian enclaves like Cambridge and Greenwich Village, and Dylan was very much involved with that clique.

Myth: The older folk establishment hated rock ’n’ roll.
Fact: Pete Seeger recorded an electric folk-rock single with the Weavers in 1957 and included rock ’n’ roll at some of his hootenannies. Alan Lomax presented an electric blues band and doo-wop group on his Folksong ’59 concert at Carnegie Hall, and when the Chambers Brothers gave a hot electric set at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965—three days before Dylan—Lomax announced: “I’m very proud that we finally got onto the Newport Folk Festival our modern American folk music: rock ’n’ roll!”
Nuance: Seeger was opposed to the commercial star system, Lomax was opposed to young urban white kids trying to sound like black blues singers or Appalachian hillbillies, and there were other people on the folk scene who were more conservative than either of them.

Myth: Dylan’s first success on the folk scene was as a singer-songwriter in the Woody Guthrie style.
Fact: Dylan was originally celebrated for his singing and playing, not his songwriting, and in particular for his blues work. His first recording was on harmonica behind Harry Belafonte; his first concert review did not mention Guthrie, but compared him to Blind Lemon Jefferson; and the Village Voice described his first LP as an “explosive country-blues debut.”
Nuance: Most people outside the Village missed all of that and first heard of Dylan after Peter, Paul and Mary got a hit with “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

Myth: Dylan’s early fans were shocked when he switched to rock. 
Fact: When Dylan arrived in New York, some people immediately noticed that he was bringing rock ‘n’ roll style to the folk scene. The notes to his first album mentioned Carl Perkins, the Everly Brothers, and Elvis Presley as influences, and his first single, “Mixed Up Confusion”—released in 1962—was electric rockabilly in the style of Elvis’s Sun sessions.
Nuance: After “Blowin’ in the Wind” took off, Dylan devoted himself to acoustic topical songs for about a year and a half, and a lot of new listeners became aware of him in this period and thought of him as a folk-protest singer.

Myth: Dylan was the musical voice of the anti-Vietnam War movement.
Fact: Dylan’s protest period ended in 1963, before the US got serioulsy involved in Vietnam. By the time most of what we remember as “the sixties” was happening (Vietnam, hippies, LSD, Sgt. Pepper, Hendrix), he not only had stopped writing protest songs, but had retired to Woodstock and did not give a concert between 1966 and 1974.
Nuance: Dylan was not part of the antiwar movement, but his songs became anthems of that movement.

Myth: The Newport Folk Festival crowd hated electric guitars.
Fact: The Newport regulars cheered an electric set by John Lee Hooker in 1963, electric sets by Johnny Cash and the Staple Singers in 1964, and electric sets by the Chambers Brothers, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and the Butterfield Blues Band in 1965.
Nuance: All the other electric acts at Newport were roots-blues, gospel, or country, played by people from those traditions. For folk traditionalists, that was very different than Bob Dylan acting and sounding like a rock star.

Myth: Dylan’s electric set was the birth of folk-rock.
Fact: There had already been folk-rock fusions in the 1950s, and when the style took off in the mid-1960s it was led by mellow groups electrifying the pop-folk sound of Peter, Paul and Mary or Simon and Garfunkel. What Dylan played at Newport was much more loud and aggressive—like the Rolling Stones, not like most of what was marketed as folk-rock.
Nuance: Dylan’s songs were performed and imitated by the folk-rockers, he was one of the great inspirations for the style, and by John Wesley Harding his music can reasonably be called folk-rock (he described that album as an attempt to get Gordon Lightfoot's sound).

Fact: Dylan’s electric set at Newport in 1965 did get booed—though more people were cheering.
Fact: Pete Seeger was very upset by Dylan’s show—though he did not really try to cut the sound cables with an axe.
Fact: Alan Lomax did get in a fist fight with Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, over the Butterfield Blues Band’s electric set, two days before Dylan’s.
Fact: When Dylan went electric, it marked the end of the folk revival and a sea-change in popular music and culture.