The Myth Of A Hatchet-Wielding Pete Seeger And His Apology Letter To Bob Dylan

In 1965, Bob Dylan and his band famously plugged in their instruments at the primarily acoustic Newport Folk Festival and changed popular music forever. There are few stories from the era that have stood the test of time as well as that one and like a lot of time-worn classic tales, the perennial retelling and reminiscing has led to some apocryphal information getting mixed in with the facts. In the case of Bob Dylan at Newport, per Far Out Magazine, Dylan and his band had played a traditional acoustic set on the first day of the festival and performed the songs  "If You Gotta Go, Go Now," "Love Minus Zero/No Limit," and "All I Really Want To Do."

On day two, they surprised the audience by kicking off their set with a loud, comparatively discordant version of their song "Maggie's Farm." The popular version of what happens next generally describes the crowd as furious, although people who were there reported a mixed reaction from the audience, with some members cheering — others booing. According to Festival sound engineer Joe Boyd in his memoir "White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s," "in 1965 it was probably the loudest thing anyone in the audience had ever heard." One legendary reaction includes that of folk pioneer Pete Seeger (above), who supposedly got so furious during Dylan's set that he stormed the stage brandishing a hatchet in an attempt to chop the power cords in two.

When Dylan went electric

The first Newport Folk Festival took place in Newport, Rhode Island in 1959. It was organized by producer George Wein and his business associate Albert Grossman along with several performers with the intent of showcasing a wide range of traditional American music, according to Britannica. The first Festival featured Pete Seeger as well as then-newcomer Joan Baez, who would go on to be one of the most famous American folk singer-songwriters of all time. Baez and Bob Dylan appeared together at the 1963 Festival and the crowd embraced Dylan so thoroughly that when he came back in 1964 to play again, per History, Ronnie Gilbert of The Weavers introduced him by saying "And here he is ... take him, you know him, he's yours." 

Forty years later, Dylan would write in his memoir "Chronicles: Volume One" that he had "failed to sense the ominous forebodings in the introduction" and went on to say of the experience, "What a crazy thing to say! Screw that. As far as I knew, I didn't belong to anybody then or now." This may have fueled a rebellious spirit in Dylan that led him to introduce an electric set within the traditionally staunchly acoustic environment, but it was also simply where his own sound was heading naturally. His song "Like A Rolling Stone" had come out five days before the 1965 Festival, but most of the crowd wouldn't have heard it yet and therefore were expecting his usual brand of folk and instead got rock 'n' roll. 

Pete Seeger had no ax

As for Pete Seeger and his ax, there was no ax and Seeger has admitted that he was angry, but not at Bob Dylan's decision to go electric. In a radio interview that took place shortly before his death in January 2014, according to Far Out Magazine, he noted "It's true that I don't play electrified instruments — I don't know how to. On the other hand, I've played with people who pay them beautifully, and I admire some of them. Howlin' Wolf was using electric instruments at Newport just a few days before Bob did." Bob Dylan wasn't even the first person to use electric instruments at the Newport Folk Festival, as it turns out. It's likely that he was simply an important symbol of the early 1960s folk revival and some people didn't want to see the standard bearer moving in a rock 'n' roll direction. 

In 1990, Seeger wrote an apology letter to Dylan in which he clarified that he had been angry, but because of the poor sound quality of the set: "Someone just told me that you too think I didn't like your going electric in 1965. I've denied that so many times. I was furious at the distorted sound — no one could understand the words of "Maggie's Farm" — and dashed over to the people controlling the PA system. 'No, this is the way they want it,' they said. I shouted, 'if I had an ax, I'd cut the cable', and I guess that's what got quoted."