Tuesday night's History Detectives program focused exclusively on rock music collectables, the dramatic intrigue hinging on determinations of whether certain rock culture artifacts were the Real Thing, or fakes. After having spent the past couple of years trying to find the whereabouts of John Lennon's white Rolls-Royce (5VD63), and in the process of doing so encountering several fakes, the roughly seventeen minute sequence of Tuesday night's show devoted to authenticating the electric guitar Bob Dylan played at the Newport Folk Festival on 25 July 1965 seemed strangely familiar.
Of the many foundational myths of rock culture, the 1965 Newport Folk Festival is perhaps one of the most heavily mythologized, having been repeatedly subjected over the years to a number of misrepresentations, distortions, and false claims. For many years, the predominant myth surrounding Dylan's Sunday night appearance at the festival was that Dylan was booed by an irate crowd because he had “betrayed” folk music by playing rock & roll. Recent revisions have attempted to redress this inaccuracy, but there are still widespread misperceptions. To name just a few: First, Dylan had already “gone electric" before that night, otherwise he wouldn't have had a Fender Stratocaster to play. Second, earlier, on 26 March 1965, he had already appeared on stage with The Byrds at Ciro's Le Disc nightclub on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood, this just prior to the release (on Columbia Records) of The Byrds' cover single of “Mr. Tambourine Man” on 12 April 1965, over three months before the Festival. In a sense, the “electrification” of Dylan had already occurred prior to the Newport Folk Festival, with the release of The Byrds' cover version of Dylan's song. Just so the point cannot be conveniently neglected, The Byrds sold more records for Columbia during the mid-1960s than Dylan. Third, Dylan had already recorded “Like a Rolling Stone” prior to the Newport Folk Festival, the single being released about five days before he appeared at the Newport Festival. The assertion that Dylan was “transformed” that night “from a protest folkie to a rebel genius” is an example of what Robert Ray calls “critical senility,” an over-emphasis on the careers of aging Sixties stars that is at least one consequence of the utter lack of interest in the work being done by younger, contemporary artists. Moreover, only someone biased against folk music would make such a claim anyway -- note the condescending tone suggested by the use of the word “folkie.” At the very least, Dylan's popularity increased as a result of The Byrds' success, whose cover of “Mr. Tambourine Man” reached No. 1 on the pop music charts weeks before the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.
To be true to Dylan's “rebel” nature, one ought to feel free to ask improper questions. For me, the far more interesting question, one that wasn't addressed during Tuesday night's History Detectives program, is why Dylan chose to play a Fender guitar. Why didn't he choose to play a Gibson, or Gretsch, or Rickenbacker? Famously, a Rickenbacker was played by The Byrds' Roger McGuinn. Guitars made by these manufacturers were popular among electric guitarists at the time, so why did Dylan choose to play a Fender? According to L.A. Times journalist Randy Lewis, citing electric guitar specialist Andy Babiuk, in January 1965 -- seven months before the Newport Folk Festival -- Leo Fender “sold his company to CBS for the then-king’s ransom price of $13 million.” According to Lewis, it is highly probable that CBS encouraged artists on its Columbia Records label “to use and promote the instruments coming out of what was then the largest music instrument and equipment manufacturing operation in the world.” Lewis goes on to write:
In his definitive 1995 book about the history of Fender, Fender: The Sound Heard Round the World, Richard Smith highlighted these ads and wrote, “One almost surreal endorsement for the Jazz Bass came from Bob Dylan. He was to jazz what Lionel Hampton was to protest music.” I checked with Smith this week to find out whether there was an active campaign in the CBS era of Fender (the company was sold by CBS to a group of private investors in the 1980s) to cross-promote the products among musicians signed to CBS labels and he said, simply, “Yes.”
Coupled with the fact that “Like a Rolling Stone” was released by Columbia Records on 20 July 1965 -- coinciding almost to the day with Dylan's appearance at the Newport Folk Festival -- in retrospect Dylan's appearance at the Festival playing a Fender guitar and performing, among other songs, “Like a Rolling Stone,” is not so much a transformative event as it was a shrewd act of promotion by CBS and Columbia Records.
Bob Dylan did not transform himself into a “rebel genius” at Newport. To understand why not, I recommend that readers refer to my earlier entry on prophetic cool, a form of cool, following Michael Jarrett, “characterized by barely harnessed rage.” Exemplary figures of prophetic cool are the young Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, and Ice-T. In contrast, figures such as Jack Kerouac epitomized “philosophical cool,” which might also be called existential cool -- the self as an effect of performance. In addition to Kerouac, exemplary figures epitomizing existential cool are Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Keith Richards, Snoop Doggy Dogg, and the old Bob Dylan. The Bob Dylan that appeared at Newport on 25 July 1965 playing an electric guitar remained as he had been before that night: a model of prophetic cool.