An Interview with Author Elijah Wald

Girlofthenorcalcountry's picture

Dylan Goes Electric! Contest Update, and An Interview with Author Elijah Wald


Congratulations to our winners Andy, Dag, David, Frank, Marty and Richard, who all won copies of Dylan Goes Electric! Big thanks to Dey Street Books for providing the copies for our contest. The book is now hot off the press so, if you’re not among the winners, fear not – you can order a copy from the publisher at this link, or from numerous other sites or your local book store!


Bob Dylan Fan Club:  I was struck by how your book is in large part a presentation of many different accounts, perspectives and opinions, rather than a particular point of view that you seem to be trying to get across. This makes it a fascinating recounting of events, since it comes at the subject from multiple angles and even admittedly through the haze of time and memory. I love this aspect of your book and found it very refreshing, as so many things that one reads about Bob Dylan seem to be written by someone trying to get their own opinion across as if it was fact!

That said, is there a key point or takeaway on the matter of Bob's electric performance on the night of July 25, 1965 that you want the audience to 'get' from reading your book?  Given the radical divergence in the ways that people recall that day, are there even any 'truths' to be revealed?


Elijah Wald:  This may feel like I'm ducking the question, but my first answer would be that I hope people take away the understanding that there are many, many valid ways to view what happened that night. To me, Dylan never wrote a more profound line than "You're right from your side and I'm right from mine." A lot of people seem to have trouble understanding that two opposing points of view can both be right, but the job of a historian is to understand how people thought and felt in the past, and the more I tried to understand what happened at Newport that night, the more convinced I became that a lot of nice, smart, decent people disagreed about what they were seeing and hearing, and about what it meant--and I can't honestly claim I know how I would have felt if I'd been there. So I guess what I'd like people to take away is a similar lack of certainty.

As for whether there are any "truths" to be revealed, sure: the basic facts of how long everybody played, and what they played, and that the crowd both cheered and booed. That leaves us with plenty to wonder about, but I at least tried to get those basics out there--and if anyone wants to check, the Library of Congress has the complete tapes and you can go there and hear them.


BDFC:  One possible reason why Bob chose to play the electric set at Newport is simply that it showcased his most recent songs. Do you think he could have just been doing what most artists do, and playing songs from his current album, and not really trying to make any point or statement at all?


EW:  Yes, I think that's a very real possibility. He clearly was not prepared for the reaction, and clearly had not planned to play with a band until he got there, and the crowd on Saturday afternoon was yelling for "Like a Rolling Stone," which was just hitting that week. So it seems very likely that he just decided to take advantage of the Butterfield Band and Kooper being there, wanted to test his new style live, and had no idea that it would be regarded as sacrilege. After all, nobody had complained about the Chambers Brothers or the Butterfield Band playing electric. (That's one thing rock historians almost always get wrong: Alan Lomax, the most purist of the purists, had nothing against electric bands--he loved the Chambers Brothers' set, and slighted the Butterfield Band because he hated white middle class kids appropriating ethnic and working class styles, not because they were electric.)


BDFC:  What do you hope Dylan Goes Electric! achieves that is different from other writings on this subject?


EW:  I would hope it leads people to think of Dylan more in the context of the scene(s) and music that influenced him, and to recognize how important music and musicians were to him. It is perfectly legitimate to think of his lyrics as the most important thing about him, but he was a musician before he became a songwriter and I would argue that for the last 20 years he has again been more of a musician than a songwriter--and, once again, he keeps going back to roots music styles rather than following pop trends. That was why I made Seeger a central figure in my story: to remind people that Dylan was formed by and remained part of Seeger's world, rather than just thinking of him as a rebel against it.


BDFC:  As you know, we held a contest for our Fan Club members to win a copy of your book. One of the questions that proved surprisingly difficult for people to answer correctly and completely was simply to name all the songs Bob played at Newport in 1965.  Bob’s July 24 afternoon workshop set is even listed on his official website as only consisting of 3 songs, leaving out Tombstone Blues and If You Gotta Go, Go Now.

In researching your book, what types of records and documents did you use to help make sure you were getting things right? Did you gain special access to any writings, recordings, or anything else that no one had seen or heard before?


EW:  As far as Dylan's 1965 Newport appearances go, the first and most important sources were the tapes and film--and yes, I got access to the tape of his Saturday afternoon set, which has never been bootlegged and, to the best of my knowledge, has never been available even to the most assiduous collectors. Honestly, it is not an exceptional performance, but interesting for the early working version of "Tombstone Blues." Beyond that, I dug up some newspaper reports no one else seems to have found -- in particular, the one describing Dylan playing electric at 4am at Nethercliff, which I think cements the memory that the rehearsal was there (at least one writer had placed it in a hotel). Another useful source was Robert Shelton's notebook, which settled the question of whether people were booing before the end of Dylan's set, since Shelton was taking notes steadily through the set and wrote "some booing" as a note to "Maggie's Farm."

For future reference, the full setlist for the July 24 Saturday afternoon workshop was:

1. Tombstone Blues

2. Love Minus Zero, No Limit

3. If You Gotta Go, Go Now

4. It's All Over Now, Baby Blue

5. All I Really Want To Do


BDFC:  Bob seems to have always reached back for inspiration and forward to forge his own path simultaneously. Of course in many ways what he was doing with the songs on Bringing It All Back Home and subsequent albums was deeply influenced by traditional blues and other genres. What are your thoughts on Bob as this type of 'folk' artist — one who is both deeply affected by his roots and yet creating something completely new, throughout his career? Can you comment on this aspect in some of his more recent work?


EW:  Dylan has never been a folk artist in the pure Lomax sense of a non-professional making music within a particular community--and Dylan himself has tended to stick with that definition, mostly using the term "folk" for older, anonymous songs rather than what he or other people write in the present to play at concerts. But if we use the newer terms "roots" or "Americana," his work pretty much defines those categories. Especially after reading Chronicles, I get the sense that he does not care about "creating something completely new" anymore--he is writing in older forms, with older instrumentation, and seems to be enjoying the craft and not worrying about breaking any new ground. Which said, simply by going out every night and playing the music he wants to play rather than recycling old "hits," he is doing something very unusual for a rock (or folk) star of his generation.


BDFC:  After 1965, Bob next played the Newport Folk Festival in 2002. He performed the entirety of that show wearing a wig and a fake beard (and did this nowhere else on that tour). If you had to surmise, why do you think he did that?


EW:  If I had to guess, I would say he was enacting a scene from a Western in which the locals had run him out of town and he was sneaking back in disguise. But that's just a guess.


BDFC:  What were some of your favorite conversations you had with people while conducting your research? Who shed light on something totally new for you? (And is Maria Muldaur as totally cool as she seems?!)


EW:  Maria Muldaur is, of course, cool. For me, though, the single most illuminating interview was with Peter Stampfel, who gave me a completely different sense of Dylan's early Greenwich Village style by describing it as a fusion of hillbilly and R&B, and also a much better sense of what it was like to be a Bohemian teen in the Midwest in the late 1950s. Honestly, I love doing this kind of research and a lot of the interviews were a huge pleasure, whether I ended up using much from them or not. For instance, I learned a lot by talking with Bill Hanley, who designed the Newport sound system, though very little of it is in the book, and it was great to meet George Wein, and fun to talk with Geoff Muldaur and Jim Kweskin, and of course Spider John Koerner, and Jon Pankake.... I could go on.


BDFC:  What's one of your favorite Bob Dylan songs?


EW:  Right now, I'm completely entranced by "Floater (Too Much to Ask)" -- I love the lyric, the jokes, the tune, the band, the arrangement... and it's new to me. I had always been an "early Dylan" guy, and would have unquestionably picked something from "Highway 61" or earlier, but one of the pleasures of this project was that it forced me to go over the breadth of his work, and--maybe because I had decided to concentrate on his musicianship--I fell in love with "Love and Theft" and "Modern Times," which I had not properly appreciated when they came out.