Dylan's famous (some say infamous) set at the Newport Folk Festival on July 25, 1965 marks the split of Bob Dylan with the folk movement when he decided to play a set with a backing band of electric instruments. The set included three songs: "Maggie's Farm," "Like A Rolling Stone
," and "Phantom Engineer."
This appearance by Dylan is portrayed as one of the most important and controversial events in the history of American rock and roll. The audience at the festival was clearly angry with Dylan and they expressed their anger with a growing chorus of boos during the 16-minute set.
The band for this set was hastily thrown together. This would indicate that doing an "electric" set wasn't necessarily part of Dylan's plans for this festival.
Several members of this band played with the Paul Butterfiled Blues Band, who played for about 45 minutes just before Dylan took the stage. Guitarist Michael Bloomfield, bassist Jerome Arnold and drummer Sam Lay all played with Dylan that evening. Al Kooper, who didn't play with the Butterfield band but played the instantly recognizable organ line on "Like A rolling Stone" in the studio recording, rounded out the band. Legend has it that Dylan rehearsed all night with this band the day before the performance, but even with that preparation, the performances were weak. That too could have accounted for the boos.
Al Kooper said later in an interview that he thought the booing was caused by a bad sound system, but recordings don't bear that out.
But the day before during a blues workshop, Alan Lomax, one of the organizers of the festival, was very condescending in introducing the Butterfield Blues Band. Lomax was a blues purist and felt that white boys had no business playing the blues. That led to a physical fight between Lomax and Albert Grossman who managed both Dylan and the Butterfield Blues Band.
Also, in introducing the evening show, Pete Seeger (another organizer of the festival, and another folk music purist,) played the audience a recording of a newborn baby, and said that the final night's program was a message from everyone to this baby that the world it was being born into was full of hate, hunger, bombs, and injustice, but that the people - the folk - would overcome, and make it a better world.
Overwrought displays like this also may have set Dylan's teeth on edge. If he was on the fence about doing an electric set, these two events might have convinced him just to get under the skin of these two pompous organizers.
Or maybe the audience was angry with the short set of only three songs. A rain delay pushed some of the afternoon bands into the evening show. So people had been sitting and waiting for Dylan for a while. Peter Yarrow (of Peter Paul and Mary, and another of the Festival's organizers) persuaded Dylan to return to the stage to sing a few more songs. Dylan borrowed an acoustic guitar (allegedly from Johnny Cash) and opened with "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" while he appeared to be regaining his wits after being blindsided by the boos from the audience.
The acoustic set seemed to placate everyone. Dylan then started to strum the chords to "Tambourine Man
" but realized he didn't have a harmonica. He asked for anyone with an E harmonic to throw it up to him. There followed a barrage of incoming harmonicas hitting the stage. Dylan picked one up, thanked the crowd and played on. (This can be seen on the Songfacts.com video of the song.)
The two recordings of Maggie's Farm presented here – the acoustic studio version, and the video from the Newport Folk Festival – are good examples of how Dylan's music changed. In 1963 when Dylan released his first successful recordings, he was hailed as one of the most powerful musical voices in America. By 1965, with the growing influence of the Beatles, and the continued musical conservatism of the folk movement as personified by Pete Seeger, the relationship between the folk movement and Dylan became increasingly strained. The final separation came with "Maggie's Farm" at the Newport Folk Festival of 1965. (Thanks, David Sherman, who teaches the History of Rock and Roll at Excelsior College.)