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Guest column



In February 2014 there was a massive media flurry surrounding the 50th anniversary of The Beatles first performance on the “Ed Sullivan Show.”

Last Saturday, July 25, was the golden anniversary of another groundbreaking event in the history of rock ‘n roll: Bob Dylan “going electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.

Dylan was, of course, one of the central figures in the early 1960s folk revival, and his acoustic albums and songs from that period, including classics like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They Are a-Changin’” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” remain at the pinnacle of the genre.

But, Dylan had an irresistible urge to further explore black music, coinciding with his embrace of the burgeoning civil rights movement and that struggle’s inherent appeal to Dylan’s rebellious nature.

By the mid-1960s Dylan keenly recognized that the blues, particularly its urban, electrified form, was soon to be in the forefront of popular music. He had heard and admired many of its modern pioneers, legendary figures like John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and B.B. King.

Dylan’s historic 1965 Newport set, in which he set aside an acoustic guitar for an electric one — condemned at the time, almost comically, by so-called “purists” — was unquestionably a harbinger. Contemporaneously, and over the next few years, much of the “British Invasion” that dominated American charts, from the Rolling Stones — whose name is taken from a Muddy Waters song— to Cream to Led Zeppelin, etc., drew much of its inspiration, and a lot of its material, directly from American blues. Dylan’s influence on this remarkable embrace of a uniquely American art form cannot be overstated. (Even Jimi Hendrix started his career in England, primarily playing Dylan songs before placing his indelible imprint on rock music).

Dylan’s 1965 Newport revelation was immortalized with the release later in the year of his iconic album “Highway 61 Revisited.” The record’s backup band included the brilliant young guitarist Michael Bloomfield and organist Al Kooper — who also played with Dylan at Newport — and there is no mistaking the album’s genuine blues sound and lyrics. (Bloomfield and Kooper later collaborated with Steve Stills on 1968’s underrated “Super Session,” offering a different take on the blues and covering “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” from “Highway 61”). Alienation echoes throughout Dylan’s album and its most powerful songs — “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Ballad of a Thin Man” are timeless works of genius.

And, with probably intentional Dylanesque irony, the album ends with the epic “Desolation Row,” an acoustic song that many maintain is Dylan’s finest poem. One can almost see him sneering at those who booed him at Newport and saying something like, “Hey, I love folk music. If you can write and sing a song like ‘Desolation Row’ I’m all for it!”

Dylan has, of course, performed in Oregon many times, and he can be chameleonlike in that no two shows are ever the same. In July 1987, opening for the Grateful Dead in Eugene’s Autzen Stadium, he delivered a traditional folk rock set of mostly well-known hits. A few years later at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, he rocked out so intensely that even diehard fans had trouble figuring out what songs he was playing.

Touring with another icon, Van Morrison, and playing at the Rose Garden in September 1998, Dylan mixed the old and the new, including material from his wonderful 1975 album “Blood on the Tracks.” Aging as gracefully as he can, his more recent local shows had him struggling a bit with his voice and mainly confined to playing the piano.

Bob Dylan’s legendary status is cemented, attested to by his numerous accolades that include an Academy Award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Perhaps his greatest gift, however, is that he was always himself. The boos at Newport in 1965 never bothered him, and we’re all the better for his courage and innovation then and throughout his career.

David S. Fine is a senior law clerk with the intellectual property law firm Chernoff Vilhauer.

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