As you’ve probably heard, the Fender Stratocaster that Bob Dylan played at the Newport Folk Festival on Sunday, July 25, 1965, sold at Christie’s on December 6 for $965,000. All Things Considered gave the story prominent coverage that night; PBS’s History Detectives “authenticated” the ax as the real thing last year. But both these reports, and virtually everything else written in the lead-up to the auction, omitted one significant detail. It’s Mike Bloomfield, not Bob Dylan, who played those slashing, staccato licks that raised such a clatter at Newport.
“Michael was the electricity, Bob was the box office,” says David Dann, who maintains the website Michael Bloomfield American Music. I might add visionary genius to Dylan’s bank of credits, but no doubt about it, Bloomfield’s frenetic playing animated “Maggie’s Farm,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” and “Phantom Engineer” at Dylan’s plugged-in premiere, and his prominence in the mix underscored his emerging status as the first white American guitar icon of blues-rock. Bloomfield and his English counterpart Eric Clapton were a mutual admiration society; in a 2007 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Clapton said, “I can remember meeting [him in 1966]. The guy in America at the time was Mike Bloomfield. There was no one else. You know why? He was serious. There was no bull involved. It didn’t have anything to do with being on TV or show-biz or popularity.” But that indifference to hype has a lot to do with why his name is missing from what’s being mythologized as Dylan’s singular bit of daring.
In NPR’s report, Murray Lerner, who directed Festival, a documentary about Newport ’65, cited the angry reaction of Parisians to “The Rite of Spring” a century ago as a precedent for how Dylan was received at Newport. But the myth of folkie hostility over an electrified Dylan has never been as cut and dried as Lerner asserts, and like the question of whether it was Stravinsky’s music or Nijinsky’s choreography that upset the patrons of the Theatre des Champs-Elysees, a variety of possible motives continues to converge on one of the most storied events in rock history. Yes, NFF board member Pete Seeger was upset and threatened to cut the mic cable, but in less impassioned accounts, it was poor sound quality and a short, 15-minute set that triggered reactions in the crowd of 15,000.
Al Kooper, a member of Dylan’s back-up band, says, “People went nuts. A lot of them sat through three days of music that they didn’t understand or care about just to hear their idol. And then he played three songs and took a hike.” Barry Goldberg also played keyboards that night, and remembers “a lot of people cheering, too…I remember Michael counting it off and saying, ‘Let’s go!’ and it was like POW! into this whirwind.” Joe Boyd, the festival’s stage manager, said it’s easy to confuse, “Boo!” and “More!” To mollify both, emcee Peter Yarrow handed Bob an acoustic and ordered him back to the stage, where he played the finger-wagging “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” and his paean to folkdom, “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
Who knows if Dylan was aware of what happened in Paris in 1913? What is certain is that he knew of the firestorm the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, which featured Bloomfield, ignited only two days earlier at their Newport debut. It was Butterfield who blew the cover off the festival’s acoustic innocence in the broad daylight of Friday’s blues workshop. There, the pre-eminent folklorist Alan Lomax, seething at the prospect of his cherished conceits about folk music being upended, gave the quintet of Chicagoans a disparaging introduction, belittling their use of amps and skill as blues players. Bloomfield called it “rank,” and the intro so enraged Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman that he confronted Lomax and punches were exchanged.
In his memoir, White Bicycles, Joe Boyd called the dispute “round one of the kulturkampf, with two large men rolling around in the dust.” Grossman’s wife Sally remembered it as “the clash of the elite and the common,” the supreme irony being Lomax, a Popular Front egalitarian, now recast as an elitist. Bloomfield gloried in the skirmish. In On the Road With Bob Dylan, he told Larry Sloman, “I was delighted to see Albert kick his ass.” The billowy, gray-haired Grossman, whom Bloomfield likened to Ben Franklin, was reputedly the dedicatee of Butterfield’s instrumental, “Thank You Mr Poobah.” In the Bloomfield biography, If You Love These Blues: An Oral History, Mike says, “We figured, ‘Albert, now there’s a manager!’ We used to call him ‘Cumulous Nimbus,’ the gray cloud. He was such a vague guy. ” Later that day, the board voted to ban him from the grounds, but the fest’s producer, George Wein, counseled that expelling Grossman would trigger the departure of Dylan and his other clients: Peter, Paul & Mary, Ian and Sylvia, Odetta, and the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. Wein prevailed.
Though he’d yet to begin managing Butterfield, it was Grossman who’d urged the Festival to book the 22-year-old blues harpist in the first place. But once his amplified sound was revealed, the old guard of Lomax, Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert, Theo Bikel, Oscar Brand, and Ralph Rinzler turned thumbs down. For Brand, amplification “was the antithesis of what the festival was supposed to be doing. The electric guitar represented capitalism…the people who were selling out.” Bloomfield saw it differently; for him, a Telecaster was the most representative voice in the “folk” music of his hometown, the Chicago blues of Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, and Buddy Guy.
In this clip from the Lerner documentary, the Butterfield Blues Band plays Little Walter’s classic “Juke” at the July 24 blues workshop. Joan Baez, Geoff Muldaur, and Mario Muldaur are in the crowd.
The Butterfield Blues Band’s raucous take on Chicago blues, which Carlos Santana, a Bloomfield discovery and protégé, called “gutbucket switchblade,” was a far cry from the acoustic country blues of the living black legends whom Newport proudly featured. That summer they included Delta bluesmen Skip James, Son House and Mississippi John Hurt, and the Texan Lightnin’ Hopkins. Bloomfield, days away from his 22nd birthday, was already a veritable encyclopedia of American music. In Ed Ward’s 1983 biography, Michael Bloomfield: The Rise and Fall of an American Guitar Hero, Charlie Musselwhite, who played extensively with the guitarist in the early ’60’s, says, “He was real smart, real interesting, and he investigated every part of music that interested him to the nth degree.”
Entrusted with the hosting duties of the Saturday blues workshop at Newport, Michael reserved his highest praise for Lightnin’ Hopkins. Spoken like an insider who was shaped by what he’d seen going down at Pepper’s Lounge and other South Side bars, he announced, “Man, this cat can play some guitar. He’s an out-a-sight guitar player, the meanest, nastiest cat. He can play fast, slow, dirty, anyway you want it…He’s my favorite bluesman, the king of the blues singers.” In later years, when the Newport controversy came up, Bloomfield liked to argue that the folk purists were blind to their own provincialism, and noted ironically that when Hopkins was back home playing Houston’s Third Ward bars, he wore sunglasses and mohair suits and wailed through an amp, but to maintain favor with the Newport crowd, he’d show up in overalls and a straw hat with an acoustic slung over his shoulder.
It’s not that Bloomfield lacked reverence for the real folk blues. “He knew his roots,” said Clapton. “He knew where it came from, and he knew where he belonged in it.” And while he was a firebrand with a Telecaster in hand, he befriended country blues elders like Big Joe Williams and Yank Rachell, presented them at the Fickle Pickle, a Chicago coffeehouse, and recorded with them for Delmark and Arhoolie. Near what proved to be the end of his life 37-year-old life, Bloomfield wrote a frank, forty-page picaresque of his travels to St. Louis, Gary, Indiana and around the Windy City with Big Joe, the itinerant guitarist who’d composed the blues classic, “Baby Please Don’t Go.” (First editions of Me and Big Joe command a princely sum these days, but there’s an expanded edition that’s slated for publication in 2014.)
In White Bicycles, Joe Boyd recalls that even though Butterfield was initially rejected by the Newport board, “Everyone was talking about [him]. His band was unlike any other revivalist group…hard-edged and raw with nothing ‘folk’ or ‘pop’ about it…Paul was an amazing harmonica player… [he and Bloomfield were] the magic dialectic.” Boyd says it was the band’s racially integrated makeup, which was still a rarity in 1965, that ultimately secured them a booking. Maria Muldaur, who was at Newport with the Kweskin Jug Band, said, “They were just so electrifying, no pun intended. I loved it. I was jumping out of my skin. Everybody I was hanging with thought they were just incredible. So that was a very memorable moment in the music scene.”
Dylan had already “gone electric” in January of ’65 when he jumped down the manhole of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and scored his first chart success. “Like a Rolling Stone,” recorded a month before Newport with Bloomfield playing the song’s signature leads and turn-arounds, was all over the radio by the festival weekend. In his book-length study, Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads, Greil Marcus hears in Michael’s playing something “triumphant, like a hawk in the sky…when, out of instinct, out of desire, out of a smile somewhere in his memory, Bloomfield finds the sound of a great whoosh, and for an instant a rising wind blows right through the rest of the music.”
While Bob hadn’t come to Newport planning to go electric, the sudden buzz over Butterfield, and his increasing disdain for folk orthodoxy, inspired him to amp up. “He knew electricity was definitely the direction and he was going with that flow,” wrote Jim Rooney and Eric Von Schmidt in Baby Let Me Follow You Down: The Cambridge Folk Years. “When he heard the Butterfield Band the day before and saw the reaction of the crowd, it seemed that the time might be right to work up two or three songs to play on the evening concert.”
Dylan recruited Bloomfield to hastily assemble an ad hoc outfit which rehearsed overnight on Saturday at a Newport mansion leased by George Wein. The group coalesced around Butterfield’s ace rhythm section, bassist Jerome Arnold and drummer Sam Lay, players who’d honed their chops with Little Walter and Howlin’ Wolf, and organist Barry Goldberg, who’d traveled from Chicago with Butter. Al Kooper had also come to Newport, but on his own as a paying customer. Shortly after his arrival, he was handed backstage passes, and was later deputized to play organ on “Maggie’s Farm” and bass on “Like a Rolling Stone,”
Barry Goldberg played the B3 on “Like a Rolling Stone” at Newport, but Kooper was the organist on the record. He’d arrived at the June 15 session assuming he’d play guitar, but as he’s humbly related ever since, “Just hearing Bloomfield warm up ended my career as a guitarist…Until then, I’d never heard a white man play guitar like that.” Kooper’s never lacked for enterprise, however, so he insinuated himself onto the session as an organist, an instrument he was largely unfamiliar with, but no sweat. The riffs he improvised, and that Dylan insisted be brought up in the mix, proved to be critical to the success of the tune, first as a Top 40 hit, ever after as a ballad hailed as “the greatest song of all time.”
(There occasionally surfaces a fascinating, minute-long clip from Dylan’s NFF sound check where bare-chested Peter Yarrow barks orders; Paul Rothchild counts the beats of “Like a Rolling Stone;” Jerome Arnold fumbles with the changes, occasioning Kooper’s playing bass that night; and Paul Butterfield looks on unamused, perhaps knowing that the Newport news he’d made a day earlier was about to be eclipsed by Dylan with the support of his own sidemen.)
When Bloomfield first met Dylan in Chicago in 1963, he approached him like a headhunter. “I had heard his first album, and I went down [to Grossman’s club, the Bear] to cut Bob, to take my guitar and cut him, burn him, [but] he was a great guy. I mean we spent all day talking and jamming and hanging out…and any instinct I may have had to try and cut him, which is very common in Chicago…was immediately stopped, and I was just charmed by the man…I realized he was way more than a player and singer. He was a magician.”
He was also an alchemist, and when he decided two years later to form a rock band, Bloomfield was his choice for lead guitar. Following Newport and the Highway 61 sessions, it was Dylan’s expectation that Bloomfield would stay on and lead his touring band, but Bloomers felt a different calling. “My druthers was to play with Butterfield. I mean I had absolutely no interest in playing with Bob because I saw that I would be merely a shadow. First of all, as a blues player, his music would take me in no direction that I wanted to go in… and I was finally beginning to see that he was an immensely popular star, and that held no interest for me at all. So we were in Newport and it sort of came down that I was going to play with Paul, I was going to join his band, and I think Bob felt betrayed or pissed.”
“So after that we like drifted apart, what was there to drift apart, we weren’t that tight, but after that when I’d see him he was a changed guy… There was a time he was one of the most charming human beings I had ever met and I mean charming, not in the sense of being very nice, but someone who was beguiling…You just had to say, ‘Man this little guy’s got a bit of an angel in him. God touched him in a certain way.’ [But then] I would see him consciously be cruel. [I could play the dozens, but] I didn’t understand that game they played, that constant insane sort of sadistic putdown game.”
Notwithstanding Bloomfield’s decision to go with Butterfield, Dylan has continually hailed him as the best guitarist he’s ever heard. In a Rolling Stone interview in May 2009, 28 years after Michael’s death from a drug overdose in San Francisco, Douglas Brinkley asked Dylan if he had ever played a set with a perfect guitarist? “The guy that I always miss and I think would still be around if he stayed with me, actually, was Mike Bloomfield. He could just flat out play. He had so much soul. And he knew all the styles, and he could play them so incredibly well. He was an expert player and a real prodigy. He started playing early. He could play like Willie Brown and Charlie Patton. He could play like Robert Johnson way back then in the early 60’s…He could play the pure style of country blues authentically.”
While there’s no denying the significance of Dylan strapping on a Strat at Newport, the music pivoted on Bloomfield’s Telecaster. Loud and brazen, a shock even to those who were inclined to cheer on the forging of folk-rock, his playing lashed out at the either/or hypocrisy of the purists, all of which reached a fever pitch on that long ago weekend. Still, he was incredulous that the audience expressed anything less than gratitude for Dylan, and was surprised that Bob seemed shaken by the experience. “He was uptight all day,” Bloomfield recalled in On the Road with Bob Dylan. “He was uncomfortable, I think he knew that this was a much more serious thing than I did.” At a party following the show, Maria Muldaur tried to draw Dylan out of his shell by asking him to dance. In Baby Let Me Follow You Down, she recalled, “He looked up with this weird and withered look and said, ‘I’d dance with you Muldaur, but my hands are on fire’.”
Bloomfield left a paper trail nearly as substantial as his recorded legacy. He was a great interview, smart, candid, and generous. He brimmed with enthusiam for the legends and lesser knowns of jazz, blues, gospel, hillbilly, and Western swing. His Rolling Stone interview from February 1968 is a virtual master class in American music, ringing with scholarship, slang, and blunt assessments pro and con. His reflections on Newport, and his ambivalent view of Dylan as a man who donned “character armor,” may be the most illuminating we have by a participant, but Bloomfield’s receding from the historical record. Would it make a difference if Dylan clarified who the guitarist of consequence was on July 25? Myth-makers and auction houses rarely pay attention to contradictory evidence.
I’ve felt a deep sense of personal gratitude toward Bloomfield since I was in my teens, not only for his playing, which retains its freshness at every hearing, but for the guidance he provided in what to listen for in music, how to hear between the cracks, in the microtones, and in the silences. He was a fierce and hilarious opponent of hype, especially when he was its intended beneficiary. After leaving Butterfield, he formed the Electric Flag, his idyllic vision of a band synthesizing “music in the air, on the air, and in the streets.” The group was new, nervous, and unseasoned when they made their debut at Monterey Pop in 1967. Appearing as The Mike Bloomfield Thing, and introducing Buddy Miles to the Age of Aquarius, they earned rave reviews, but that only deepened Bloomfield’s disillusionment. “We played abominably, and they loved us,” he told Rolling Stone . In the oral history, If You Love These Blues , he said, “They loved us. What a lesson that was. I learned then that if you looked like you were getting it on, even if you were terrible, they’d love you.”
Later in the Rolling Stone interview, Michael revealed, however unwittingly, the divide he was never able to bridge between the transcendent achievements of his dues-paying youth and the meaninglessness of mass acclaim. “It’s like me with B.B. [and Muddy]…I love them. These cats who were so groovy to teach me and they were so groovy because they weren’t satisfied with just the little white boy playing those licks. You had to be good in order for them to dig you. They just weren’t happy, they weren’t grabbed, just to see a white cat playing that music. That wasn’t where it was at. It was when a cat socked it to them. They’d say that was the real shit. That [feels] so good, man!”
(Here’s the Electric Flag sounding a lot better than abominable in recently unearthed footage from Monterey. Newly settled in San Francisco, Michael sounds like a mascot for the Summer of Love and a true believer in the transformative power of music . The Flag’s studio version of “Over Lovin’ You” was coupled with “Groovin’ Is Easy” on a single released for airplay. As with the singles issued from Butterfield’s landmark albums with Bloomfield, neither of which has ever been out of print, none became radio hits.)
Jimi Hendrix’s major American breakthrough occurred at Monterey, which he famously wowed with flamboyant sexuality, stagecraft, and pyrotechnics. Bloomfield was Hendrix’s biggest proponent before he was renowned, and afterward. Hendrix sat in with the Butterfield band at Cafe au Go-Go, where he jammed with Bloomers, Elvin Bishop, and B.B. King. While he doesn’t mention Michael in this performance of “Like a Rolling Stone,” he retains the dynamics of Bloomfield’s indelible “whoosh” from the Dylan original. For this Bloomfield acolyte, it sounds like tribute. And given the precipitous decline in Bloomfield’s career following his departure from the Flag in ’68, and his half-hearted commitment to Super Session, his studio jam with Al Kooper, it feels elegiac.