By Jay Parini
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Additional info for American Writers, Supplement XVIII
This was Dylan’s third year as one of the festival’s headliners, and he used the occasion to dissolve the usual folk formula for performance. Instead of standing onstage alone with his guitar and harmonica, he invited Al Kooper and members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band to join him; Kooper and Mike Bloomfield had recently performed on the recording of “Like a Rolling Stone,” and Dylan told them he wanted to reproduce the feeling and the sound they had achieved in the studio during that session.
The “hard rain” of the song was often taken to represent a nuclear rain, but Dylan explicitly resisted this interpretation. In fact, the lyrics build upon an old traditional song, bringing to it the same type of biblical incantation that Ginsberg had pursued in Howl and later. This was undoubtedly Dylan’s breakthrough composition, and in its context one can see even the much more immediately popular “Blowin’ in the Wind”—a favorite of the protest movement—struggling to exceed protest and achieve something more recognizable as prophecy.
Close followers of Dylan could certainly have noticed in the body of his songwriting and in the matter of his public statements a long evolution of his priorities away from politics and protest—after all, as early as 1963 he was distancing himself in interviews from overtly political interpretations of songs like “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”—yet it took his 1965 performance at Newport to force such a recognition. This was Dylan’s third year as one of the festival’s headliners, and he used the occasion to dissolve the usual folk formula for performance.
American Writers, Supplement XVIII by Jay Parini