The new book Pete Seeger: In His Own Words offers many strong opinions, but one of the strongest is his reaction to seeing Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. This is the infamous debut of Dylan’s electric band, which had Seeger tearing out his hair over the inability to hear the poet’s lyrics. Seeger allegedly said, “Get that distortion out of his voice … It’s terrible. If I had an axe, I’d chop the microphone cable right now.”
Seeger has since back-pedaled on some of this, but in a note from ’65, included in the book, he calls Dylan’s set “some of the most destructive music this side of Hell.”
We all say things we regret. Another great man, Sam Charters, who discovered or rediscovered many of the leading lights of the music, was also a fine writer. But his period writings record his visceral dislike for the early stirrings of Chicago-style electric blues. He obviously changed his mind, because he later produced a series for Vanguard called Chicago: The Blues Today!, featuring Junior Wells and Otis Spann. When I interviewed him, he seemed to look back on his earlier revulsion with some amusement.
Downbeat Magazine heaped negativity on the head of players now known to be groundbreaking, including Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy. The magazine didn’t give Coltrane any coverage at all from 1962 to his death in 1967, and it hated Dolphy and Coleman. Today, the same pages recognize the genius of these musicians.
Let’s celebrate our right to change, grow and see things more clearly.