November 6: Bob Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street” peaks at No. 7

On July 25, Dylan took the stage at the Newport Folk Festival and his band launched into “Maggie’s Farm,” his coded goodbye to the writing protest songs. Just like the song’s protagonist, Dylan had a head full of new ideas to try, and he wasn’t going to keep singing the way they wanted him to. Ironically, the song was inspired by the old folk song “Down on Penny’s Farm,” which Pete Seeger had covered. But as Dylan played his modernized version with Seeger in the wings, the band was so loud Seeger couldn’t understand the words. Seeger’s father was there and wore a hearing aid, and the blasting distortion of the speakers upset him. Seeger tried to get the sound mixer to lower the band’s volume but he refused, saying it was how Dylan wanted it. Seeger cursed, “Damn it, if I had an axe, I’d cut the cable right now!”

Mike Bloomfield ripped on the guitar, but in the footage, boos can be heard mingled with the cheers. Dylan said, “Well, I did this very crazy thing. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but they certainly booed, I’ll tell you that. You could hear it all over the place.”

The extent — and reason — for the booing has long been debated. Probably most were booing because he was no longer writing civil rights anthems but trying to be a pop star. “Like a Rolling Stone” used the same chords as “La Bamba,” “Twist and Shout,” and “Louie, Louie,” and at New York’s Ondine nightclub go-go girls were frugging to it. Many of the older folk singers, like Seeger and Burl Ives, had been Communist idealists who had been blacklisted and lost a decade from their careers due to their convictions.

Al Kooper thought they were also booing because the drummer changed the beat mid-song and confused all the musicians. Others say people were booing the poor sound mix, as the festival wasn’t set up for rock bands. Kooper also thinks it was because Dylan was the headliner but only did “Maggie’s Farm,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” and “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” before hurrying offstage. At Yarrow’s onstage prompting, he did finally return to play acoustic songs, but only two, “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”

Over the course of the next year, Dylan would grow to fiendishly thrive off the audience’s boos, tapping back into that part of himself at the high school talent show who howled “Rock and Roll Is Here To Stay” (“African shrieking,” a teacher dubbed it) and prompted the principal to turn off the power. Even then, the teenage Dylan kept pounding the piano, breaking the pedal off.

But while Dylan presumably did not care about his principal, he had once turned down an appearance on the popular Hootenanny TV show because they wouldn’t let blacklisted Pete Seeger play. In an interview with Martin Scorsese decades later Dylan recalled how hearing that “Someone whose music I cherish, someone who I highly respect is going to cut the cable, was like, oh God, was almost like a dagger.” Dylan clutched his heart. “Just the thought of it made me go out and get drunk.”

After the adoration he received on his spring tour, it was the first time in a long while that he had faced a negative reaction. At the after-party, while the others celebrated he brooded alone by himself. When folkie Maria Muldaur asked him to dance, he replied gnomically, “I would dance with you, Maria, but my hands are on fire.”

“I was kind of stunned,” he later told Playboy. “There were a lot of people there who were very pleased that I got booed. I saw them afterward. I do resent somewhat, though, that everybody that booed said they did it because they were old fans.”

Four days later, he went into the studio and unleashed an attack on his old folk stomping grounds with “Positively 4th Street,” the street in Greenwich Village that was home to Gerde’s Folk City and other clubs Dylan used to play. He hissed that the folkies were jealous drags, and it became one of the most specific examples of dirty laundry to make the Top 10. Like Motown, Dylan knew to milk the elements of his previous hit (“Like a Rolling Stone”), so the organ is front and center, chortling “ho ho ho” at the smiling faces who think they can backstab him. The beautifully distorted guitar arpeggios give the song a burned out, mellow groove in sharp contrast to its spiteful words.

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