‘If I had an axe, I’d cut the cable': What really angered Pete Seeger about Bob Dylan’s Newport set

Pete Seeger bluntly refutes the oft-told notion that he tried to pull the plug on Bob Dylan’s first electric performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.

In fact, Seeger says he was upset over the primitive sound system.

“I was furious that the sound was so distorted, you could not understand a word he was singing,” Seeger says, in a newly posted video interview with Amy Goodman. “He was singing a great song, ‘Maggie’s Farm’ — a great song. But you couldn’t understand it.”

Seeger says he ran over to the sound man, and said: “Fix the sound, so you can understand him. They hollered back: ‘No, this is the way they want it.’ I don’t know how ‘they’ was. I was so mad, I said: ‘Damn, if I had an axe, I’d cut the cable right now.’ I really was that mad.”

The legend of his fury, misread Seeger says from the start, has grown larger with each passing year. “I wasn’t against Bob going electric,” he adds. “As a matter of fact, some of Bob’s songs are still my favorites. What an artist he is.”

Besides, Seeger notes, Dylan wasn’t even the first person to go electric at the festival that year: “It’s true that I don’t play electrified instruments,” Seeger says. “I don’t know how to. On the other hand, I’ve played with people who played with them beautifully — and I admire some of them. Howlin’ Wolf was using electrified instruments at Newport, just the day before Bob did.”

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  • http://newstreetcommunications.com Ed Renehan

    Bob himself refutes the story about Pete trying to cut the cables at Newport, and speaks warmly of Pete both in his autobiography and in the PBS “American Masters” film about Pete, for which Bob did an interview.

  • Robert

    Wow, very interesting.

    Sound guys are still doing this on occasion at Dylan concerts. Setting the sound up loud and letting it go distorted.

    And they still give basically the same answer, “that’s the way they want it.” That’s bull hawkey. Dylan doesn’t want to be unintelligble when he’s singing, nor do the band members.

  • http://expectingrain.com Elroy Huckelberry

    People booded Dylan not because he went electric, but because he hadn t brought a proper sound system, all the guitars were buzzing with feed back and you could not hear he voice or anything. So its a myth that because Dylan went electric people boooooed

  • TWM

    Pete is right in saying that others played the electric guitar at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival before Dylan. Earlier that day, the Chambers Brothers did so during the Religious Music concert, for example. Indeed, they did so when Joan Baez joined them onstage at one point. Also, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, moved from the afternoon “New Folks” concert because of a storm, opened the evening concert at which Dylan performed. The Butterfield Band was also scheduled to be at a “Blues” workshop on the preceding Friday and there were three “Bluesville” workshops on the Saturday but I don’t know if Butterfield and/or Band appeared at those.

    I’m pretty sure that Pete is wrong to cite Howlin’ Wolf in this context, however. I think the Wolf appeared at the 1966 Newport Folk Festicval.

  • JC Mosquito

    The mythology that has built up around the cable chopping story is actually more interesting than what really happened. Regardless of its factual inaccuracy, it has become recognized as the moment in time where Dylan disawoved the pedantic nature of the contemporary “folk” music scene into which he had been thrust (or maybe into which he had thrust himself), and went on to the next level. Dylan has been quoted as saying there was a difference between what was being being marketed as folk music (Peter, Paul & Mary, The Weavers, and so forth) and the traditional folk music as identified in Greil Marcus’ book Invisible Republic (retitled in paperback as The Old, Weird America).

    Eventually when he got called out as a “Judas!” he was able to brush it off with his now famous response, “You’re a liar.” More significantly, he turned back to his band and said, “Play f***ing LOUD!” – effectively burning one last bridge, leaving some of his audience stranded forever on the other side of that great chasm that separates art from comfort.