Throughout the early sixties, the Newport Folk Festival provided a spotlight for folk royalty like Joan Baez, Johnny Cash, and Howlin’ Wolf, under the assumed context that they’d uphold the festival’s acoustic roots.
So when a young, defiantly-haired Bob Dylan—who had previously established himself as the festival’s darling in ’63 and ’64 with earnest, socially conscious anthems like “Blowing in the Wind,” using no more than an acoustic guitar and a harmonica—sauntered onto the 1965 festival’s stage with a Fender Stratocaster strapped purposefully to his chest, it wasn’t only a big “F-you” to an aging folk establishment, but a watershed moment for pop music as a whole. Drawing a chaotic mix of boos and cheers, Dylan’s plugging in altered pop music’s narrative forever. It was brash. It was annunciative. And it changed the way we experience rock & roll.
“Everything was so low key in those days,” says photographer and Fender historian John Peden, who documented Dylan at the ’65 festival. “[Dylan plugging in] was challenging. If you were in a movie theater, watching a screen of a certain size and suddenly it’s cinerama widescreen, it’s in your face—it requires an adjustment.”
“I think some of the crowd had trouble adjusting to the volume and the sound,” he says. “It wasn’t Hedy West with a banjo. It was loud. It was aggressive.”
The electric guitar itself is important because it signified much more than a shift in volume or dynamics. While “Like a Rolling Stone” was already charting the airwaves (the crowd shouldn’t have been as surprised as they were, notes Peden), the silhouette of Dylan wielding the classic Strat—as modern and far removed from an acoustic guitar as there was in the ’60s—indicated a monumental shift in rock music’s DNA.
Sure, Dylan could’ve amplified (or even “plugged in”) a more traditional, hollowed-out guitar; the fact that he chose the Strat was a conscious decision not to.
“He definitely had a confrontational air, and he sort of invited that,” recalls Peden. “Whether he knew it or not was part of his schtick at the time.”