Feeling electric: Inside Bob Dylan’s rock ’n’ roll breakthrough 50 years ago

Fifty years ago, Bob Dylan stunned the crowd at the annual Newport, Rhode Island, folk festival by using an electric guitar. The influential singer-songwriter who made his mark singing with an acoustic guitar and harmonica was booed, but it was a breakthrough for rock ’n’ roll music. Bob Love, AARP The Magazine Editor, who interviewed Dylan, 74, earlier this year, joins Hari Sreenivasan.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR:

    What's the big deal about plugging in a guitar, having an electric guitar on a stage at a folk festival?

  • BOB LOVE, AARP THE MAGAZINE:

    The folk community, the folk artists, the folk appreciators thought that rock 'n' roll music was beneath them, that it was pop music for teenage angst. And they thought that Dylan was trying to sell out.

    The first song was "Maggie's Farm," "I ain't going to work on Maggie's farm no more."

  • BOB LOVE:

    And it was shocking from top to bottom. He's dressed like a bluesman, like a rhythm & blues artist. He's not dressed like the proletariat ragamuffin that he presented himself to the world as for years.

    The music is loud.

    He followed that with "Like a Rolling Stone," with the full rock band backing, the organ, the piano…

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Which most people have never heard in the audience.

  • BOB LOVE:

    Right. It was released as a single and I think it went to — it went to the top 10 pretty quickly. But people who weren't paying attention to popular music might not have heard it.

    Now these folks, the elders of the folk community, had embraced Dylan as their own. In fact, they called it — you're one of our own.

    But somebody forgot to ask Dylan. And he had a different point of view about that. He didn't belong to anybody. He didn't belong to any movement. He didn't want to stay that way forever.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    But that time, rock 'n' roll was in its infancy. We didn't really — we were still defining what rock was.

  • BOB LOVE:

    Suddenly rock 'n' roll was authenticated as a medium large enough in capacity, flexible enough in its framework to hold songs of that kind of power. Rock 'n' roll kind of arrived that night because Dylan authenticated it.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Bob Dylan constantly retooled himself. I mean, give our audience an idea of how many different phases he's been through in his career.

  • BOB LOVE:

    First of all, there was the interpreter of the American folk tradition, then there was the acolyte or torch bearer for Woody Guthrie.

    And then there was the writing of his own topical songs. He's recreated himself as a religious singer, as a country & Western singer and most recently when we spoke, it was about his idolizing of Frank Sinatra and the American Songbook standards, which he just released a record this year in the spring.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    It seems that on that night at Newport, Dylan was being Dylan and not what everyone expected him to be.

  • BOB LOVE:

    He was doing what a true artist does, which was following his muse and his inner voice, which told him to go in this direction.

    He wasn't waiting for the approval of the audience. He wasn't seeking the approval of the audience and he hasn't many — other times in his career; he was behaving the way an artist behaves.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    It's kind of the essence of rock 'n' roll, to challenge the convention to —

  • BOB LOVE:

    Absolutely.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    — do your own thing.

  • BOB LOVE:

    Right. Dylan, you know, idolized Elvis; he idolized Marlon Brando.

    He idolized all the rebellious figures of the 1950s and then suddenly, you know, stepped into their boots and became one himself.

    Now we expect our artists to change. We don't expect them to stay the same.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Did he seem now, when you met with him, is he comfortable in his own skin?

  • BOB LOVE:

    Yes. It's called the never-ending tour. He's never stopped touring.

    He plays about, you know, he's — several hundred days a year. He tours as a regular means of expression. He loves it. He says, you have to go where the people are. You can't expect them to come to you.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Right. A pretty amazing moment in rock history. Bob Love, thanks so much for your time.

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