Today is the 50th anniversary of Dylan going electric at the Newport Folk Festival. Many of his fans felt betrayed that he would become just another Rock & Roll star. But Dylan himself has said that before Woody Guthrie, he wanted to be like Elvis. Going electric wasn’t a betrayal of some folkie ideal; Dylan didn’t owe anything to anyone or any movement. The only person he had to be loyal to artistically was himself. Plugging in an electric guitar was a declaration of his freedom and independence as an artist, and he’s never really looked back since then. Bob Dylan is many things to many people, but the one thing he will always be is himself. There’s no escaping that.
Sometime in 1966, Dylan was touring England. Half these shows each night were acoustic, and the other half was electric with Dylan backed up by some group called The Hawks (they’d later change that name to something a little less specific). After they’d finished the scathing “Ballad of a Thin Man,” a disgruntled fan called out “Judas!” The moment was electric, even without the Marshall amps. There was genuine violence in the air in that moment. Not to make light of any actual terror and violence, but it was like a gun had been fired. Dylan’s response is to tear into “Like a Rolling Stone” with a vengeance, and it is brilliant.