Happy belated 80th birthday Bob Dylan

by Bill Woodley

I turned 80 last December, and on learning that Bob Dylan turned 80 on 24 May, I was reminded of the only time I have seen him perform live. It was in 1965, at the Newport Folk Festival. But I missed the big news story, when he shocked the folk world by “going electric”, playing an electric guitar at a concert.

1965 was my first year living in Ottawa. Even though rock music was wildly popular in the mid-60s, I preferred the more political and controversial folk music. Like many young people in that era, I had learned a few guitar chords, just enough to sing and play “Blowing in the Wind” for friends, if liquid refreshments were making the rounds, or a campfire and other distractions were loud enough to cover a few wrong notes or words. The Newport Folk Festival was the centre of my musical universe.

The annual Newport Folk Festival was the principal gathering place for folk musicians and fans in the 1960s. The town of Newport, Rhode Island, in 1965 was a somewhat jaded vacation haven of the rich and famous, with many of the decaying ocean front mansions from the 1920s standing vacant or occupied by hippies. The Newport Jazz Festival had long been well known and well attended, but by 1965 the Folk Festival had become a bigger summer attraction.

ABOVE (CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT)Bob Dylan; Ian and Sylvia Tyson and Gordon Lightfoot; Mississippi John Hurt performs with Pete Seeger helping out backstage and Mance Lipscomb.

I drove to Newport from Ottawa with several friends to visit the Folk Festival the weekend of July 23-25, 1965. It was a long drive along mostly winding two-lane roads, but well worth it. Most of the big names in folk music were there, including Pete Seeger, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Mississippi John Hurt, Canadians Gordon Lightfoot and Ian and Sylvia Tyson, and of course Bob Dylan. I took pictures of some but missed many others. Film was expensive in the days before digital photography, and I shot only 24 black and white photos during the whole weekend. If I had known then what I know now I would have taken a lot more!

Saturday was filled with formal and informal gatherings from morning till midnight, and the highlight for me was an afternoon workshop where Dylan sang three of his songs using an acoustic guitar and harmonica. I was close enough to catch a bit of a smile at one point.

ABOVE: Mimi Farina (sister of Joan Baez) RIGHT: Mance Lipscomb with Pete Seeger.

As I recall, Sunday was somewhat slower paced, especially as it rained heavily, drowning out the mid-day concert. In the afternoon we decided to head back to Ottawa and skip the Sunday evening wrap-up. Dylan’s performance at the evening concert has been well reported and recorded, and it looks and sounds like he was booed off the stage by folk traditionalists who called him a traitor. 

So, Newport 1965 turned out to be a significant milestone in the folk music revival — although I didn’t know it at the time and I didn’t witness the event. But I did catch Dylan’s last “pure” public performance before he “sold out” to rock and roll — and went on to greater fame. Happy Birthday Bob.

Bill Woodley’s photographs from Newport 1965 were exhibited at Irene’s Pub in Ottawa, and at the Contact Photography Festival in Toronto, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Festival in 2015.