Ever since Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” famously set off a “riot” at its 1913 Paris premiere, every artist who wants to be considered great needs to provoke some kind of reactionary spectacle. In rock’n’roll, one such spectacle was Elvis’s supposedly waist-up TV debut on The Ed Sullivan Show, a story so good people forget the King had already performed on the Milton Berle Show and Steve Allen Show — and that even Sullivan very clearly showed Presley from head to toe. It’s a myth right up there with George Washington cutting down his cherry tree, or Al Gore outrageously saying he “invented the Internet.”
The biggest reactionary-spectacle myth of rock’s self-consciously artistic mid-to-late-’60s phase has popped up again recently with, as Rolling Stone reports, the possible discovery of the guitar Bob Dylan played at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. That’s the show where, according to proscribed legend, the now-Medal of Freedom recipient “went electric” and got booed off the stage for his rock-inspired heresy. The truth, of course, appears to be a bit more complicated than that.
The Newport gig, held days after the release of the “Like a Rolling Stone” single, was indeed Dylan’s first live set with electric instruments. But recent documentaries have shown that the crowd applauded as well as booed. And historians have long differed, some vehemently, over whether the booers were mostly upset at the electric guitars or for various other potential reasons (to be sure, some traditionalists really were upset over the electrification, but there’s no evidence their view was the majority opinion). As with Elvis and Sullivan, or Washington and his inability to tell a lie, the most emotionally satisfying version of the story might not be the true one.
None of which is to diminish the historical significance of the guitar, which, nevertheless, was the first one Dylan would have used in a live performance. According to Rolling Stone, New Jersey resident Dawn Peterson told PBS’ History Detectives that her late father, a pilot who worked for Dylan’s manager in the mid-’60s, once found three guitars that were forgotten on the plane, and nobody ever came to reclaim them. A vintage instrument specialist and a veteran Dylan memorabilia collector both reportedly told PBS the 1964 Fender Stratocaster was, indeed, the same one Dylan played at Newport.
Dylan’s camp offers a different view. “Bob has possession of the electric guitar he played at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965,” his attorney, Orin Snyder, told Rolling Stone in a statement. “He did own several other Stratocaster guitars that were stolen from him around that time, as were some handwritten lyrics.” No word on what Dylan currently thinks about the Newport myth.
In any event, it’s all part of an episode of History Detectives that airs on July 17. Whether or not the guitar, valued at up to $1 million, is authentic, Peterson might not be able to sell it. The guitar belongs to Dylan until he actively decides to let it change hands, according to an entertainment lawyer cited in the article. There were probably attorneys at Stravinksy’s riot, too.