Bob Dylan performs an acoustic set at St. Lawrence University, November 26, 1963, just days after the Kennedy assassination and a year and a half before “going electric” at Newport in July 1965

Today is the 55th anniversary of Bob Dylan’s so-called plugging in and going electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Dylan at Newport in ’65 is one of those now Well Told Tales, recounted today by hundreds of thousands but witnessed in real time by a fraction of that number. The story has been mythologized, and to a large degree overblown, for more than half a century now. In the standard telling fans were outraged that Dylan would deign to forgo his folk roots and pollute the purity and sanctity of Newport with electronic sound. That doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. For one thing, there had already been electric music played at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival; the Paul Butterfield Blues Band had done that very thing, as had others.

What is more, Dylan’s most ardent followers would have already known the directions he was already taking; his fifth album, the half-electric Bringing It All Back Home, had been released four months earlier in March. It seems the real issue with any booing–and it’s not really evident that there was that much–had to do with the sound quality of the stage set. The festival had been growing exponentially each succeeding year and organizers were having difficulty accommodating the thousands of listeners who converged on that New England seaside community fifty-five summers ago.

Nineteen sixty-five was a tipping point in the decade. Malcolm X had been assassinated in February, the Johnson Administration was escalating the American presence in Vietnam, Watts burned just two weeks after the Newport Festival. By the years’s end the Beatles would release Help! and Rubber Soul, and Dylan himself came out with Highway 61 Revisited. I was talking to someone a few days ago about this heady time when the Beatles and Dylan were taking over popular culture and he described it saying that it felt like the world was transforming from black-and-white to color, which in many ways it was via photography and television. It is no wonder people remember–and misremember–the moment so “clearly.”

(image/1964 St. Lawrence University yearbook)