Among the major tv news programmes in the UK, people might expect Channel 4 News to be most attuned to the legacy of Pete Seeger, but yesterday’s obituary of the great man contained a horrible howler: it claimed that “the infamous Isle of Wight festival” was the occasion when Dylan controversially went electric. They had clearly confused IOW 1969 with the Newport Folk Festival of 1965 – possibly because the present day IOW festival takes place near Newport IOW. As readers of this blog will be well aware, IOW 1969 took place near Ryde, featured a downbeat and rather conservative performance by Dylan, but did not involve widespread booing or Pete Seeger threatening to cut the wires to the sound system.
Channel 4’s error was compounded by a selective quote from Seeger, referring to that threat, but taken completely out of context: Seeger was objecting to the distorted sound and the fact no-one could hear Dylan’s words. He was not opposed to electrification per se and made the point that Howlin Wolf had performed an electric set the day before, without any objections. Certainly there were purists in the folk movement, but they did not include Seeger. He was a man who, despite his middle-class roots, did more than anyone to champion the self-expression of the working-class and the emancipation of the oppressed. He had the guts to stand up to McCarthy’s Un-American Activities Committee and to decisively reject his early admiration for Stalin. I believe he was wrong to also reject revolutionary politics for a belief that fundamental change could be achieved incrementally, and even wronger to celebrate Obama’s presidency as evidence that “this land is our land”. But Dylan could certainly have learned from his steadfastness in devoting his life to the greater good.