Wednesday, July 25, 2018
July 25, 2018: Folk Music Studying: Dylan Plugs In
[On July 25th, 1965 Bob Dylan famously—or infamously—plugged in an electric guitar on stage for the first time, as part of the Newport Folk Festival. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that moment and a few other American folk music topics!]
On the limits of the concept of the “counter-culture,” and its AmericanStudies value nevertheless.
As the Smithsonian magazine article linked above under “or infamously” notes, there are various theories as to why—or even whether—Bob Dylan received such a negative audience reaction when he used an electric guitar for his July 25th, 1965 Newport Folk Festival set. But whether he really did receive such a response or not, and whatever the motivations behind each particular unhappy audience member’s boos or jeers, I think it’s fair to say that the reason why the story has endured in our collective consciousness as fully as it has is a bit clearer. In 1965 Bob Dylan was one of the most prominent symbols of the counter-culture, the resistance to all things “mainstream” that was coming to define the decade and era so fully. Rock and roll had of course emerged out of such counter-cultural streams itself, but by 1965 had it seems come to be more closely associated with mainstream popular culture. So Dylan wasn’t just plugging in his guitar on that July evening—he was, according to these narratives, plugging into that mainstream popular culture in a way that seemed an overt betrayal of his counter-cultural identity and influence (or at least that has frequently been portrayed as such a betrayal in the histories of the decade).
In many ways, that response illustrates the silliness—or at least the entirely constructed nature—of a concept like the counter-culture. For one thing, Bob Dylan didn’t suddenly change his identity in July 1965; every artist of course evolves over time, and perhaps some become more popular as part of that evolution (those who stay around for long enough are almost guaranteed to do so, or at least to be perceived as more “mainstream” due to their longstanding prominence), but the process is never black and white and certainly doesn’t take place in individual moments (however striking they might be). For another thing, to suggest that something like an electric guitar can only be a tool of mainstream music is like dismissing any novel written in first-person narration as genre fiction or the like; artistic devices can and should be use by any artist, and indeed it’s by using them that artists in various genres and sub-genres help expand those devices’ possibilities. Perhaps Bob Dylan did become more mainstream over the course of the 1960s or beyond, but to link such a transformation to one night and one instrument is at best reductive in the extreme.
So I have my doubts about the value of the concept of “counter-culture” in understanding either individual artists or moments or collective communities or periods. But at the same time, I would argue that narratives of the “counter-culture” can tell us a great deal about definitions of American society and identity, both in any particular period and in overarching and ongoing ways. As my posts this week have helped illustrate, after all, folk music has long been interested in defining national questions; even if we don’t make it the new national anthem as I suggested in Monday’s post, I’m not sure there’s ever been a song more interested in depicting all things “America” than Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” So what has made such acoustic folk music necessarily “counter-cultural,” as it’s consistently been defined and as is necessary for contrasting it with Dylan’s shift to electric rock? Part of it, I’d say, is the generally critical lens, a perspective that overtly seeks to counter some of the more seemingly shared yet ultimately limiting elements of mainstream American culture. But part of it—and this is a much too complicated point for the final couple sentences of a post!—also has to do with popularity. That is, in 1965 electric guitars seemed more appealing to broad popular audiences than acoustic ones, rock and roll more hit-friendly than folk music. But perhaps there’s a space for imagining a popular counter-culture, in which case Dylan could be said to have been trying to get there.
Next folk studying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Folk music moments or texts you’d highlight?