Inside “Bob Dylan: Electric,” A New Exhibit at the American Writer’s Museum in Chicago

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It was the shot heard round the folk world: the day Dylan went electric.

The scene, of course, Newport Folk Festival, July 25, 1965.

“Bob Dylan: Electric,” a new exhibit at the American Writer’s Museum in Chicago, which is open to the public through April 30, 2019, uses the 1964 sunburst Fender Stratocaster Dylan played that year at Newport as a jumping-off point to look at Dylan’s effect on the culture. It is the most expensive instrument ever sold at auction.

Dylan archivist and collector Mitch Blank, who provided several artifacts for the exhibit, was in attendance that year at Newport.

The single “Like A Rolling Stone,” featuring an electrified band, was released a few days before Newport. So why was Dylan going electric at Newport such a shock?

“People weren’t that aware of what was going on,” says Blank, who contrasts the insular folk scene of 1965 with the overly tuned-in world of today, but also adds that it didn’t feel like such a shock at the time, echoing other recent debunking of the Newport myth.

Curator Alan Light says the exhibit took shape around Dylan’s electric phase because that’s when Dylan’s writing showed “the limitless possibilities, the shedding of expectations and rules,” and when it became art that represented “the sound in his own head.”

Among the other artifacts in the exhibit are Dylan’s personal copy of Catcher in the Rye and an original 1965 Newport Folk Festival program autographed by Dylan.

Beyond the artifacts, the exhibit explores the idea of songwriting as literature.

In his lecture for being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016, Dylan writes that he took his “vernacular” from folk songs, and his “themes” from great literature like Moby Dick and The Odyssey.

But he also makes an important distinction: “lyrics in songs are meant to be sung, not read on a page.”

Light says that particular debate is “often impossible to untangle,” but adds that a definition of literature, for him, is art that “communicates ideas and images, and language that inspires people.”

The museum will continue this debate with additional features in its “Singers & Songwriters” series, including Grammy-winning Chicago songwriter Robbie Fulks on Dec. 1, and the songwriter Louie Pérez from Los Lobos, whose new book is Good Morning, Aztlán, on Dec. 9.

Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard: Sing Me Back Home: The D.C. Tapes, 1965-1969