The Move from Acoustic to Electric in Folk Music

Newport Folk Festival 1965

By the mid 1960s, the Newport Folk Festival was becoming an established event attended by hardcore folk fans and with a bill featuring Joan Baez, John Lee Hooker and Johnny Cash, amongst others. A young Bob Dylan had played there in ’63 and ’64, treating the eager audience to songs from his hit albums The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and The Times They Are a-Changin’.  The political messages in his work suited the Newport fans just fine, as the Festival had always encouraged and supported this type of commentary in music. However, in July 1965 the tide would turn, and Dylan would be booed and hissed rather than cheered. This was the year Dylan went electric.

The Animals and Bob Dylan

The Animals’ timeless classic version of ‘The House of the Rising Sun’ is often credited with being the catalyst that turned Dylan on to the electric guitar. Released in 1964, the song was an immediate success on both sides of the Atlantic and topped the charts in the UK, the US and Canada. Based on a traditional folk song, it acts as a great example of folk music being adopted and developed by an electric rock band.

By the time the 1965 Newport Folk Festival came around, Dylan was experimenting with this new marriage of different sounds, heard on his seminal single from that year, ‘Like A Rolling Stone’. But word of this monumental shift had not reached his fans at the Festival, and so it was a shocked, angry audience that listened to him perform that day. Their reaction perhaps came from a sense of betrayal, that the person they’d loved and supported had suddenly deserted folk for rock and roll, but it didn’t do Dylan any harm. In the next year 2 years he released Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, both featuring rock musicians and firmly cementing his place in the music hall of fame.

The Folk Revival and Folk Rock

Of course, there wasn’t just Bob Dylan spearheading the big folk revival happening on both sides of the pond. Simon & Garfunkel, the Byrds, Fairport Convention and even the Beatles were all getting in on the act. There was a reason why the Newport Folk Festival was attracting such attention and why Dylan going electric garnered such an extreme reaction. Folk was popular and its fans didn’t want it spoiled by electric guitars and a rock ‘n’ roll attitude.

There is always some resistance to change and this is certainly not just confined to music. In more recent times, the move from basic mobile phones to the internet-enabled iPhone, or from live casino to online sites like SkyVegas, or even the national change from analogue to Digital TV, have all caused uproar at the time they came about. A shift towards something newer and more technologically advanced can be confusing, scary and unsettling, but it can also be exciting. Despite the vocal disapproval of much of the Newport audience, there were also people there who enjoyed Dylan’s electric new sound and wanted more of it. Thus, the appetite for folk rock was born.

Modern Folk

Modern folk music has developed and branched out since the 60s into many different genres, including everything from prog. folk rock and folk metal, to country folk and Celtic rock. As one of the oldest and most persistent genres of music, folk is not going anywhere any time soon; it’s existed pretty much for as long as human beings have and there’s always been a place for it somewhere, even if not in the mainstream. However, the move from acoustic to electric seen in the 1960s certainly caused a monumental shift in folk music circles and pressed this enduring music category firmly into the limelight.

21st century musicians such as Laura Marling, Mumford & Sons and The Staves combine many different elements in their music, sometimes using electric instruments and a rockier sound, sometimes sticking firmly to their folk roots with acoustic guitars, handclaps and traditional melodies. Whilst the way to success is paved with the talent and hard work of many folk musicians from across the centuries and the globe, it is perhaps that fateful day in Rhode Island that can be credited with kickstarting the new incarnation of folk music for the 20th and 21st centuries.

Why Folk Music Will Never Die

The themes and sounds often found in folk music are two of the main reasons why it has endured for so long. In times of social unrest, people need an outlet to express their feelings, whether that be hope, frustration or apathy. Folk music is the perfect medium for this, as it is usually accessible and repeatable. The move by some artists from acoustic to electric in the 1960s did not threaten these core values of the genre at all, rather helping them to be accepted by a wider audience and ensuring folk carried on into a new millennium.

Folk Music Festival