Why was Bob Dylan’s 16 minute performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival so controversial?

In the Newport Folk Festival of 1965, the 16 minute performance given by Bob Dylan was disapproved by certain sections of the audience.  In a break away from tradition, Dylan used an electric guitar in a live folk concert for the first time, which many fans came to regard as unauthentic.  This event is said to have affected the further evolution of the folk genre, as well as the rock ‘n’ roll genre.

The Sunday-night event had always been the highlight of the Newport Festival. In 1965, having risen to stardom as a promising folk singer, Dylan was chosen to give this key performance.  The previous night he played a couple of songs from his album ‘Bringing It All Back Home’ using the traditional acoustic guitar.  But his use of an electric guitar on Sunday night elicited a round of boos from the audience.  Various reasons were forwarded for this show of audience displeasure.  The popular explanation is that electric guitar is inappropriate for the folk genre. Diehard fans of the genre felt alienated by this breach from tradition.

Another account claims that the less-than-optimal quality of sound annoyed the fans.  Pete Seeger, who was attended the concert seem to support the latter explanation.  He found the sound quality so poor that he immediately went to the technicians’ room and snapped at them “”Get that distortion out of his [Dylan’s] voice … It’s terrible. If I had an axe, I’d chop the microphone cable right now.”   Bob Dylan himself said in a later interview that he was offended by Seeger’s reaction, which would suggest that he disagrees with this view.  Some even opine that the controversy is largely a product of fiction.  Bruce Jackson, who was one of the key behind-the-scenes men, reckons that there is as much myth as there is fact surrounding the controversy.  He goes on to say that the crowd’s displeasure was directed at Peter Yarrow rather than at Bob Dylan or for the audio quality.  In an effort to keep up the planned schedule, Yarrow might have inadvertently upset the audience by not extending the length of Dylan’s segment.

Irrespective of these various interpretations, the event set a precedent for subsequent Dylan concerts.  The 1965 Newport Folk Festival would mark Dylan’s abandoning of the acoustic guitar for good.  In the following years, Dylan’s concerts would contain two segments: the folk section played to conventional standards of the genre using acoustic guitar and harmonica; followed by the ‘rock’ section where he used an electric guitar.  The starting of the ‘rock’ section was invariably greeted by the crowd with boos, indicating that the first mentioned version of the controversy was probably the most plausible one.  The controversy would also stand as a watershed event in the evolution of folk music, in that it infused an element of novelty in the genre.