Throwback Thursday: Hearing Bob Dylan at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival

You Can Never Go Home Again

That fork in the road, the one you take? It will change you forever. Good or bad. And the one you didn’t take? You’ll never know. That’s a life not lived. Not yours. Except in your imaginings. It’s no wonder I turned out the way I did. No wonder my life veered from a comfortable vanilla childhood (lost in the recesses of Time) to one exploding with color, verve and variety, heat and heartache. Away from my parents. Living life to the full — that’s what it takes. No Secret Life of Walter Mitty for me. I took the fork in the road that turned out to be the wild one, perhaps the one less traveled, the one that opened up my life. Yeah, you can look back and think what might have been had you stayed the course of your family’s designs for you. Sometimes that’s a good thing. But really, once you leave, you can never go home again. And why would you want to? No more vanilla for me, no thanx, not after my breakaway trip to Newport way back in 1964, when I was sixteen.

Helen

Helen sat down in front of the fire next to me the night before the festival was to begin. She was a hippie before there were any. Dressed in tie-dye with bangles on her wrists, she spent the entire weekend with me, listening to music, smoking joints and doing a whole lot more. I don’t know what she saw in me, but she was the first woman I’d been with. It was the start of the Summer of Love three years early. I never saw her again after the festival. She vanished. Maybe I vanished, too. I don’t know. In those days, we had no emails, cell phones, Facebook, Messenger, Instagram or any of the other technologies we stay in contact with today. Only snail mail and a telephone. As it was, I never got her address or phone number. That was a fork in the road not taken. All I knew was that she was from Troy. Helen of Troy. Troy, New York, that is.

Helen of Troy 1964 Newport Folk Festival Bob Dylan

What a Time

I am a weary and a lonesome traveler. A song sung by a seasoned traveler looking back on his travels in life. I can’t yet say that of myself. I am not yet weary. Nor am I lonesome. I’m just a traveler on the road of life. Alone, we are all alone, surrounded by the multitude of humanity. And surrounded I was. At the festival. I was struck when I first entered the grounds, seeing the stage for the first time, and all the people milling around, waiting for the music to begin. I’d never seen so many folk like me gathered together in one place. There was no long hair — that wasn’t happening, not yet. Just short, beatnik style. Still, everyone looked distinctly different than the way the older generation did. This would be my first festival of many that would come at me like the speed of light. I got some sporadic whiffs of pot in the air. That was a first, too, others partaking of the magic bud in public. I knew others smoked, but until now I didn’t realize how widespread it was becoming. It was an underground movement beginning to bubble to the surface. 1964. What a year. What a time.

Disdainful Mansions

We were up early and drove out into the city to rustle up some breakfast. I was driving the VW Bus and made a wrong turn — away from downtown. I got on a street that paralleled the ocean. We came around a curve. I was looking for someplace to turn around when I spied a long row of gargantuan-sized mansions; no, they were more like fairytale castles perched precariously on the edge of the cliff, all of them disdainfully looking down at the water. Aghast, and in wonder at the same time, I drove slowly — all of us agape — staring out the windows — down the street past the towering monstrosities of wood and stone that looked to be centuries old, and probably were. I was struck then like I am today that people could spend their money on such obscenities when there are so many destitute and poor people in the world. How much money and things are enough to accumulate? I guess not enough. No matter how much glitter these people accumulate, they can never get their fill. We never did find a breakfast joint, so we lit up a joint of our own, turned around and headed back to Nirvana, passing the huge Ships of State of the rich and powerful.

1964 Newport Folk Festival Bob Dylan

The Festival

That afternoon (or was it evening,? I can’t recall) found us sitting to one side listening to the music, passing around many a joint. Helen of Troy sat next to me, one arm around my shoulders. Doc Watson came on and literally blew me away with his flat picking style on the guitar. He was blind, too, with a voice like honey. I had never heard him up until now. Later, I would collect all his recordings on vinyl. He’s dead now but not forgotten, not by me. I got to meet him later on as he was walking out of the venue. I shook his hand tremulously and told him thank you. He nodded and hurried out. Too many people wanting to talk to him. It was also the first time I’d heard Joan Baez. With a voice that sounded pure, as though it had never been tampered with, as clear as crystal shining in the light. Nearly perfect in every way.

Muddy Waters also was a highlight for me, along with Mississippi John Hurt. I’d never heard the blues sung like that — live. I could feel the vibrations of the music quiver me. I would go home and buy a secondhand Stella twelve-string guitar, which cost me twelve bucks, and pound away at it with a bottleneck I sawed off a wine bottle, trying to find that sound, sometimes hitting it right; most of time, not.

The next night I heard Pete Seeger. He’d been blacklisted by Joe McCarthy and had even spent time in jail for his leftist leanings. Later that night when the music was over, I played my long neck banjo for hours, trying to emulate his style. I didn’t go to sleep until dawn, my fingers bleeding. That night we also saw Joan Baez, Phil Ochs (later of Pigasus fame in 1968 at the Democratic Convention in Chicago) and Tom Paxton. The next night we saw Frank Proffitt from North Carolina play his fretless banjo and sing what I called high hillbilly. Then, Peter, Paul and Mary and the Osborne Brothers finished out the night.

On Sunday, the last day, Dave van Ronk came on singing an Eric Von Schmidt song that I loved and often played, called Baby Let Me Follow You Down, a song Bob Dylan also recorded on his first album. And then the man himself, the one I’d been waiting for came on. Bob Dylan in person. He didn’t disappoint. Usually, when you have such high expectations for something you’re waiting for, it always manages to let you down. Not this time. To this day, I don’t remember what he sang, except he was still using his acoustic guitar. It would be the next year, 1965, that he would appear here and shock everyone, including me, performing with an electric guitar. Ah, the vicissitudes of time. We all change, and I learned to love him all over again, electrically.

Headed Outward Bound Inward

On Monday we headed back home, even though I knew I’d never stay or call it home again. I had gotten my first sniff of the wide world outside, and I wanted to continue my exploration without and within. On the Road. We all have a death sentence hanging over us. But we all have a life sentence, too, not behind bars, but out there, out there in life, for as long as we’re given. There is no exit, except to you-know-where. Make your time worth it. Get out on the road. You never know what fork you’ll take.

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