Bob Dylan and Newport: 50 years on

Fri, 07/24/2015 - 9:00am

The Newport Folk Festival starts on Friday, July 24 and runs through the weekend, marking a half century since Bob Dylan performed his genre-challenging show.

Fifty years ago Bob Dylan strapped on an electric Fender guitar at the Newport Folk Festival, and tore into his songs — deliberately. I saw him that night. Some of the crowd heckled him but he didn’t care. Dylan sang his lyrics like he meant it — every vowel and consonant had a purpose — and his phrasing was unlike anything the folk music listening public had ever heard. His melodic inflections were embedded with full stops, stalls and purposeful pauses. His voice had a slight, catchy nasality. He played his guitar and blew his rack harmonica with assurance. He owned his space on the stage. He was professional and he was doing the gig on his own terms. That night in ’65 this made perfect sense to me; it was his moment and he took it. The guy didn’t flinch.

If a performer: actor, musician or dancer is not willing to be deliberate, which means to do something consciously and intentionally, well, they shouldn’t be up on the stage in the first place. They should be in the audience witnessing someone else performing deliberately. The performer must be impervious to insult; an acquired mindset only borne from experience. When Bob Dylan hit the stage that night 50 years ago, he most assuredly knew this. His body language, guitar playing, and microphone techniques dominated the moment to moment execution of his songs. He exuded power and confidence. Whether the crowd loved him or hated him it was the same thing. They were in the moment — Dylan’s moment — and they were listening. Mr. Bobby Dylan was doing his job.

There is really no mystery to an artist like Bob Dylan. He’s a guy who obviously is very well read — he stretches his metaphors to the snapping point — the song “Like A Rolling Stone” exemplifies this. Furthermore, he has a great sense of narrative in his songs, e.g., “Tangled up in Blue.” (Google the lyrics.) And he knows a lot about many musical styles: folk, rock and roll, and the blues. Dylan works hard. His piano and guitar skills have carried him through a long and expansive career. He’s a working stiff doing his job the best he can, and precisely the way he wants to. He writes songs, records them and plays them. He shows up for his job and does it on his own terms. Then he gets his dough and moves on to the next gig.

After his momentous night many years ago at the Newport Folk Festival, Bob Dylan went on tour in England. “The Hawks,” a.k.a. “The Band,” took some serious hits from the audiences on that tour. Getting heckled from folks who just couldn’t move on must’ve tested the patience of the whole gang. So, Dylan took a break from working that kind of touring schedule and took a different tack with his career. Much has been written about that period of his life. It seems like life just happened, and he rolled along with it up in Woodstock, New York. But, as he rolled along he wrote songs and played his guitar — a lot. For Dylan it was about work. Remember, this is how he earned his dollars.

When Dylan got famous, the press did a tap dance on his head. In the beginning it probably amused him, and most assuredly, the very bright and cunning guy that he is knew it would help him sell a slew of records — he was a working family man and had bills to pay. However, it must’ve become an absurd position to be in when the press was calling him a “prophet,” and “the voice of a generation,” and other lofty and heady things. The guy was a guitar picker who scribbled out words, and he had some luck in finding some gigs where he could hone his craft. The “prophet,” thing had to have this guy shaking his head. With fame, it appears that folks must cope with the fickle public’s demands for minutiae and headlines. It is what it is for those who go down that road, and Dylan got a snootful of this over the years — the good, the bad and the ugly.

So Dylan became famous and made records. And he toured because that’s how he could sell his records. Furthermore, his chops got honed — practice makes perfect. Listen to the phrasing of Dylan’s lyrics and we hear a guy who could stretch his vowels — “Mr. Tambourine Man,” is an apt example. He jammed loaded lines of imagery in a rapid manner, and then let his voice rise and fall when we least expected it. It wasn’t so much what he said, but it was how he said it. The guy was clearly unique, and forthright in his delivery. He kept the audience on its toes.

Finally, one example of Dylan’s deliberateness as a performer was at a gig in Rio where he sang “Like a Rolling Stone,” with The Rolling Stones. Here is Dylan at center stage in the vortex of the histrionics of Sir Mick and his posse, simply holding his own and just singing his song — no drama. We can tell the guy is having a blast with this cast of characters. We can also see that he is not being upstaged by any of these guys; this big shot rock and roll band is in his wheelhouse, and what drives the song and the entire performance is the nattily dressed and buttoned up cowboy-hatted and Telecaster-playing troubadour singing his words as he damn well pleases — deliberately. That singular performance reminds me of what he did in Newport that night all those years ago. Bob Dylan has been rolling along for decades doing what he does, and he’s having a hell of a ride.

All good on you, Mr. Bobby Dylan — and keep on keeping on!