The Voice of a Generation: Musical Persona and the Role of Myth in the Collective Memory of Bob Dylan's 1965 Newport Performance
Date of Award
Master of Arts (MA)
This thesis seeks to define what made Bob Dylan’s infamous performance at the Newport Folk Festival of 1965 such a major event in music history. Using Philip Auslander’s theory of “Musical Personae,” I examine how musicians acquire a musical persona, as well as how this persona can determine the way audiences receive and perceive the performer. This thesis also delves into the way collective memory and myths can exacerbate persona, calling into question authenticity and reality within a performance. I start by giving background on Dylan’s early life in Hibbing, Minnesota, which helps to construct how his persona came to be. By consulting records, accounts, scholarly work, and interviews one can begin to see the glimmerings of Bob Dylan’s first persona (something that changes throughout his career as a singer). I point to some of Dylan’s most influential references such as Woody Guthrie, Odetta, and the writers of the Beat movement, as well as some surprising references such as Elvis Presley and James Dean, who break down the idea that Dylan was, all along, a “folk purist.” I then go on to describe Dylan’s early career in Greenwich village, examining how gender fluidity and cultural practices contributed heavily to the continued construction of a musical persona. I compare Dylan’s career with those of Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez, two women who have had a more difficult time in trying to change personas throughout their long careers. This suggests that gender and persona are closely linked, and the way audiences perceive performers is often tied up in antiquated ideas about musical genius and gender representation. I end this thesis by describing the controversial performance Dylan gives at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. I give context to the Newport Festival by recounting its history and unique attitude towards bringing in underrepresented performers, as well as its links to the Civil Rights Movement. I then examine Dylan’s performance within the context of the festival, being sure to point out that the myth that he had “gone electric” at Newport was not accurate, since he had already released an electric album a few months before his performance there. I conclude that though there was a breach of the audience-performer contract during Dylan’s Newport performance, it was not this moment alone that changed the course of rock and roll history. The “authentic” Dylan is a constructed concept that never existed. Audience members each had a version of Bob Dylan in their minds, and this is how persona is created. While other scholars seek to pinpoint Dylan’s persona shift to the 1965 Newport Festival, I seek to dismantle the collective memory of audiences and critics alike. Dylan’s persona didn’t change on that day, it had already been changing for several years. We only perceive the shift because we collectively decided Dylan was no longer the same performer we had constructed in our minds.
Number of Pages
Perlow, Alexandra M., "The Voice of a Generation: Musical Persona and the Role of Myth in the Collective Memory of Bob Dylan's 1965 Newport Performance" (2022). Graduate College Dissertations and Theses. 1567.