Dylan Goes Electric
Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night That Split the Sixties
By Elijah Wald
Dey St/Harper Collins – £16.99
[…] an early theorist of what would become known as multiculturalism, the ideal of the melting pot was virtuously egalitarian but in practice meant boiling the distinctive qualities of myriad ethnic cultures down ”into a tasteless, colourless fluid of uniformity… the American culture of the cheap newspaper, the movies, the popular song, the ubiquitous automobile.” Or, most obviously in the early 1960s, television, where colournessness and uniformity were explicitly enforced by blacklisting and racial segregation.
Sometimes he lapses into a scrawny Presleyan growl, and at its very best, his voice sounds as if it were drifting over the walls of a tuberculosis sanitarium – but that’s part of the charm.
Indeed, it is part of the charm; but with the appalling terrorist attack which took place in Paris on Friday evening – that has since been rightly reverberating around the entire planet – it could well be argued that we need the gut-wrenchingly, honest, humanistic lyrical likes of Bob Dylan now, more than we ever have. As not from the likes of Sam Smith, Taylor Swift or literally anyone else, are we ever going to hear such prophetic words as: ”If God’s on our side, he’ll stop the next war.”
If, he’s on our side, that is.
But futile murder and mayhem aside, here’s another idiosyncratically interesting book on Dylan called Dylan Goes Electric, which traverses the many trajectorial arguments of his infamous first electric performance at the Newport Folk Festival on July 25,1965.
The key word here is of course, ”Folk,” although with the benefit of informative hindsight and this meticulously well researched, altogether marvelous book, the words brave and innovative suffice equally as well.
For instance, in the book’s Introduction, author Elijah Wald immediately states his case by writing: ”Dylan at Newport is remembered as a pioneering artist defying the rules and damn the consequences. Supporters of new musical trends ever since – punk, rap, hip-hop, electronica – have compared their critics to the dull folkies who didn’t understand the times were a-changing, and a complex choice by a complex artist in a complex time became a parable: the prophet of the new era going his own way despite the jeering rejection of his old fans.”
That the Wald writes with such an incisive, yet relative ease so very early on, wholeheartedly invites the reader to delve ever deeper, ever further; replete with inadvertent haste.
Or perhaps that should read, inadvertent pace?
”He challenged the establishment: ”Something is happening here, and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” He defined his own transformation: I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” He drew a line between himself and those who tried to claim him: ”I try my best to be just like I am, but everybody wants me to be just like them.” And he warned those wary of following new paths: ”He not busy being born is busy dying.”
Lest it be said, Wald has throughout these 309 pages (excluding Notes and Bibliography), clearly written on and about a subject he loves and adores.
In fact, amid parts of the book’s third chapter, ‘New York Town,’ he goes so far as to semi-dissect said era, by way of what folk music actually meant to Bob Dylan, as well as the day and the book’s other prime protagonist, Pete Seeger: ”For Dylan, as for Pete Seeger, the attraction of folk music was that it was steeped in reality, in history, in profound experiences, ancient myths, and enduring dreams. It was not a particular sound or genre; it was a way of understanding the world and rooting the present in the past. As he later reflected, thinking back on that time: ”Folk songs were the way I explored the universe, they were pictures and the pictures were worth more than anything I could say… It wasn’t that I was anti-popular culture or anything… I just thought of mainstream culture as lame as hell and a big trick… What I was into was the traditional stuff with a capital T and it was as far away from the mondo-teeno scene as you could get.”
The latter in particular, exponentially explains why Dylan went on to strike such a colossal difference with so many people, not to mention segments of society. And why he went on to ”play all the folk songs with a rock’n’roll attitude.”
When you (honestly) think about it, it’s probably why you’re reading this here review.
If there’s any criticism to be made of these eleven fine chapters, it’s that there may in parts, be a little too much written about Pete Seeger (page 121 especially). Yet, with the overall feel of Dylan Goes Electric draped in a writing that can only be described as overtly and musically political, I wouldn’t be surprised if Dylan himself weren’t a tad reflective upon perhaps reading parts of the book – the following in particular:
”The festival programme was not simply a Machiavellian gambit in a Dylan-centric chess game, but Peter Yarrow notes that ”there was a camaraderie and even a complicity of sorts between Robert Shelton and Albert Grossman,” and in this period the writer felt personally responsible for much of Dylan’s success and embraced the singer’s work as a vessel for his own aesthetic and professional missions. He was a committed crusader for authentic folk music and progressive politics, and Dylan exemplified both. Like Guthrie, Dylan was a personification of progressive traditionalism, a popular wordsmith whose songs outshone his personal charisma and whose rough voice and neo-ethnic style would inevitably limit his appeal and keep him out of the pop mainstream.”