Elijah Wald answers questions
Dylan Goes Electric! : Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night That Split the Sixties, written by Elijah Wald, examines the influence of Bob Dylan’s performance at the Newport Folk Festival in July 1965. Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues, as well as How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music, are among Wald’s other works. He is a musician who has toured as a guitarist and singer, and his work has appeared in The Boston Globe and a number of other media.
Q: You write, “Why does what one musician played on one evening half a century ago continue to resonate?” Why do you believe it, and why did you choose to create this book?
A: The quick answer to the second question is that I’ve been hearing and reading disputes about what happened that night since I was a kid, so obviously it’s a hot topic, and I wanted to see if I could help.
But once I started digging into it, I became more interested in all the reasons why people were so passionate about Newport, Dylan going electric, and the crowd’s reaction—thus it ended up being a much bigger and more intriguing book (at least to me) than I had anticipated when I started. One reason it still resonates is because Dylan is still such a significant person. When a singer attempts something new and his or her fans are disappointed, the story of him being booed at Newport has become a parable—people often cite to that night as an example of artists being ahead of their fans. It’s also become an icon of that era in the 1960s, with the young rocker defying the conservative old folkies. As it turns out, I believe it was misconstrued, and the story was far more complicated…which is, after all, what the book is about.
Q: In the book, you compare and contrast Dylan and Pete Seeger. What do you think about their relationship?
A: Between 1961 and 1965, there was a lot of change. At initially, Dylan admired Seeger much, and Seeger served as a mentor to Dylan, introducing him to people and bringing him onstage, and later becoming one of the first and most notable singers to perform Dylan’s songs. However, Seeger was always more interested in starting, supporting, and being a part of large movements—whether artistic, political, or both—than Dylan, who was always a loner. That, in my opinion, is at the heart of the negative vibes at Newport in 1965: the split between young musicians who wanted to go their own way and other artists—some older, some younger—who believed music should serve a collective, progressive movement or spirit.
Q: What do you think Dylan’s main influences were in the years running up to 1965?
A: The thing about Dylan was that, unlike most young artists, he had a wide range of likes and interests that changed over time. From his days fronting a band in high school to the moment he brought a band onstage at Newport, rock ‘n’ roll was always a part of his mix—one that’s of the things a lot of people don’t realise: his first album was labelled “folk music,” but the liner notes named Elvis, Carl Perkins, and the Everly Brothers as important influences, along with Woody Guthrie, blues, and New Orleans jazz pianist Jelly Roll Mort
Many people referred to him as a blues singer at the time, and I believe that is correct in many ways and is the key to the story: as a folk singer, he was always heavily influenced by blues, and when he went electric, he was still working with blues musicians and singing essentially the same material. Of course, he sang a wide variety of songs, and he continued to evolve and adapt at a rapid pace, but blues is at the heart of the story I recount in the book. One of the most common misconceptions about Dylan is that he spent the preceding several years as a folk singer, grouped with Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and Peter, Paul, and Mary—but none of them had any major blues influence, and Dylan always appeared most at ease and most himself in the blues. Not surprising, given that he began his career performing Little Richard classics, which are all straight-ahead blues.
Q: What impact and legacy does Dylan’s music have now, 50 years after the events you describe?
A: For most people, it’s the songwriting: he practically invented the “singer-songwriter” aesthetic, the idea that a serious artist sings his or her own compositions, and as a songwriter, he paved the way for people like Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, changed the direction of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and paved the way for Kurt Cobain, Alanis Morissette, and a slew of other singer-songwriters.
That’s widely seen as his most significant contribution, which is why his biography is always recounted in terms of his growth as a songwriter—and I don’t disagree. But… in this book, I’m telling a different story because his decision to “go electric” was based on his skills, interests, and ambitions as a musician—his realisation that he could be as raw and rough as the Rolling Stones while yet having deeper roots in the American blues tradition. You can still hear him mining the blues legacy on his first two albums from the 2000s, Love and Theft and Modern Times. That wasn’t what inspired “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “Masters of War,” and it wasn’t really the aesthetic of Blood on the Tracks—which for many singer-songwriter fans is his best album—but it was very much what compelled him to join the Butterfield Blues Band at Newport that night, and there are a lot of young “roots” or “Americana” artists these days who are following in Dylan’s footsteps, the ones that lead from Robert Johnson and Hank
Q: What are you currently working on?
A: I just finished grad school—I only had a year of college and wanted to learn how to read academic writing and possibly teach—so between that and this book, I’ve been pretty busy for the last few years, and now I’d like to take some time to play music, do some gigs as a guitarist, and form a duo with my wife, Sandrine, who plays clarinet… There are several writing projects on the back burner: one is looking for the roots of blues and rap in censored African-American songs (I’ve been going through archives of unpublished material collected in the early twentieth century); another is a book about the first Freedom Ride (I became immersed in the early Civil Rights movement as part of the Seeger/Dylan/Newport story, and I’d like to pursue that some more); and yet another is turning my dissertation into a book (I’ve been
Q: Is there anything else we should be aware of?
A: Just because I saw this book as a story about two great personalities in American music, and about a period of time—and I tried to convey it in a way that made sense and was intriguing and thrilling.
If it achieves only one or two goals, I hope it will offer those who have never heard Pete Seeger perform a sense of who he was and how significant he was, as well as urge people who have always thought of Dylan as purely a songwriter to consider what he did as a musician. And, to give you an idea of how different the early 1960s were from the cliched “sixties,” this book takes place before the Beatles produced Sgt. Pepper, before the Vietnam War became a huge concern for young people, and before most people realised what LSD was.
-Deborah Kalb was interviewed for this article.