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Legendary Bob Dylan Guitar Inspires Movement and Mystery

July 17, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
A New Jersey woman thinks she's found the famous Fender Stratocaster that drew boos when Bob Dylan plugged in at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. The singer disputes that claim. Jeffrey Brown interviews the host of PBS' History Detectives, which featured the story on its season premiere.
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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, a rock and roll mystery solved, perhaps. It centers on a famous Fender Stratocaster Bob Dylan played when he first went electric in 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival.

Elyse Luray and Wes Cowan are two of the host sleuths on PBS’ prime-time program “History Detectives,” and their investigation into the Dylan guitar airs on the season premiere tonight.

I had a chance to talk to Elyse Luray about it yesterday.

But, first, here’s an excerpt from the program.

DAWN PETERSON, New Jersey: My name is Dawn Peterson.

For more than 40 years, this guitar has been in my family. My dad was a private pilot for Bob Dylan. The guitar was left on one of his planes, and he took it home. After he died, I watched a documentary about Bob Dylan. And it showed footage of the first time that he played an electric guitar live.

It looked exactly like the guitar that my dad had left in our family’s attic. I want to know if this is the guitar that Bob Dylan played when he plugged in at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.

NARRATOR: The story of Dylan being booed for switching to an electric guitar at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival is a legendary moment in rock ‘n’ roll history, but the guitar’s whereabouts have long remained a mystery.

ELYSE LURAY, “History Detectives”: I’m in Rochester, New York, to meet Andy Babiuk. He’s authenticated guitars for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.

Oh, cool.

ANDY BABIUK, New York: And there’s the neck.

ELYSE LURAY: Oh, there’s the. . .

ANDY BABIUK: And there’s the date.

ELYSE LURAY: The 2nd of May, ’64. So it’s period. It’s a match.

ANDY BABIUK: This is just — this is the right thing, so this is great.

ELYSE LURAY: This is really great.

The guitar is dated one year and two months before Newport. But is it the Fender he played that night? My office has made what may be a breakthrough. We ran down a photographer, John Rudoff, who had been a 17-year-old pressed up against the stage that summer night in Rhode Island.

OK. So these are from the 1965 Newport festival.

He took what may have been the best and clearest images of Dylan that night and his controversial guitar.

JEFFREY BROWN: And joining me now is “History Detective” Elyse Luray.

So, Elyse, you think you have got the actual guitar. We just showed a little snippet of some of all the evidence you gathered. What was the key thing for you?

ELYSE LURAY: I think the key thing was really some of the parts.

Obvious, when the fingerprints, which we’re calling fingerprints, but the wood grain matched the photograph, we knew we thought we had the guitar. But it was the sum. It was really having the lyrics and the guitar case and some other ephemera that came with the piece and then the guitar. So, it was everything together that really made it a compelling case.

JEFFREY BROWN: You seem to have aroused something of a controversy, though, because a lawyer for Dylan claims that he still thinks he has the guitar.

ELYSE LURAY: Yes, there’s definitely some controversy out there.

You know, we contacted Dylan about six months ago to talk about the story, mainly because we wanted to get into the Morgan Library, because that’s where all of his lyrics are. And you have to have his permission to get in there. And we didn’t know that — we didn’t ever hear anything back from him saying that the guitar was stolen or that he had the guitar.

And then, last week, we got the statement. So we’d love to see his guitar to either learn if we made a mistake and how we made the mistake, or if we have the real thing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you lay out the importance of this guitar in your story, its importance in rock ‘n’ roll history, legendary moment in that history.

But I wonder if you were still surprised by the passions that it seemed to arouse from the people that you met along the way.

ELYSE LURAY: You know, after doing the show for 10 years, passion doesn’t surprise me for any piece, because that’s the beauty of the show.

And I’m a memorabilia specialist. I have been doing this for 20 years. I used to be at Christie’s in the memorabilia department. So passion drives a lot of collectors. So that part wasn’t surprising to me.

I think the surprise is that it’s rock ‘n’ roll history, and it’s a pivotal moment in rock ‘n’ roll history. After Dylan plugs in and goes electric, we start seeing the movement of blues coming into rock ‘n’ roll. And at the same time he’s changing, we have the Rolling Stones coming in and changing, we have Hendrix changing.

So it was a really big movement not just in rock ‘n’ roll history, but again parallel to American history. So that — it all works for me.

JEFFREY BROWN: How does a story like this start for you, this one and others? How did this one in particular come your way?

ELYSE LURAY: She came to us. Dawn Peterson came to us.

But all the stories in the 10 years that have come to “History Detectives” come from people who have really family folklore about their pieces. And they say, I think I have this piece. I want to know. And they ask us a question. And 90 percent of the time, I’m like, yes, right.

And this time in particular, I was like there’s no way she has Bob Dylan’s guitar. No one knows where it is. We had called “Rolling Stone” and we had called the rock ‘n’ roll Hall of Fame to see if they knew where the guitar was. And they’re like, we haven’t seen it in 40 years.

So, I was like, this is never going to be true. So, they all come to us. People submit over the Internet or through mail. And then we try to research it.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, what happens to this guitar now? Could it be sold or auctioned? Would it have to be authenticated even more? What’s the process?

ELYSE LURAY: Well, I mean, does it need to be authenticated any more? No. But we do need to see Dylan’s guitar at some point just to make sure.

We really strongly believe that we have the guitar. I would love to see the one that is in his possession, so we could compare the two and see really which one is the one that was used at the Newport Folk Festival.

And, remember, he played this guitar for a while. It wasn’t just at the Newport jazz festival — so he went — Folk Festival. He went on and played it for a while. So — but what happens to the guitar is really out of “History Detectives”‘ hands.

We — the story was brought to us. And for us, the story was really about authenticating the guitar and really showing the viewers the process as to what we do to go through and — to authenticate something, as well as connecting it to American history and telling a compelling story.

So that’s what we’re here to do. You know, if she sells it, if she gives it back to Dylan, if it goes to the Hall of Fame, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, that’s not really for us to decide. That’s kind of for them to decide.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

Elyse Luray of the “History Detectives,” thanks so much.

ELYSE LURAY: Thanks, Jeff.