When Dylan Went Electric: Historic Newport Stratocaster to be Auctioned by Christie’s

The 1964 Fender Stratocaster guitar that was played by Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival in July of 1965. Christie’s estimates the guitar will bring between $300,000 and $500,000. I expect it to sell for more like $1 million.

On Dec. 6, 2013, Christie’s of New York will auction the 1964 Fender Stratocaster guitar that was played by Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival in July of 1965. The guitar is expected to bring between $300,000 and $500,000.

Stratocasters of this vintage without notable provenance regularly sell for $30,000 or less. Apparently, rock ’n’ roll provenance demands a premium price.

Stratocasters with impressive provenance have sold for impressive prices before. In June 1999, Christie’s sold Eric Clapton’s 1956 Strat for $497,500. In 2004, another Clapton Strat sold for $959, 500. Both of these sales were to benefit the Crossroads Centre, a drug-and-alcohol rehabilitation center founded by Clapton. A third Strat autographed by several celebrities (including Clapton) was sold in 2006 for $2.8 million to benefit the victims of the 2004 Asian tsunami. If rock ’n’ roll provenance is worth big bucks, rock ’n’ roll provenance attached to a cause is worth even more. But what about the Dylan Stratocaster? What makes this guitar so valuable? It’s not autographed, and it’s not being auctioned to benefit a cause.

Dylan’s performance at Newport was a defining moment in the history of Rock ’n’ Roll, so says Rolling Stone magazine.

Auction pundits say that the guitar’s value is tied to its place in rock ’n’ roll history. Rolling Stone Magazine marks Dylan’s performance at Newport one of the “50 Moments that Changed the History of Rock ’N’ Roll.” Perhaps that’s true; but this Strat’s place in history and the price that it might bring at auction is not the most interesting part of this story. In my opinion, the real story is how the guitar came to be in this auction in the first place.

In 1965, the Newport Folk Festival was in its fifth year. The four-day festival featured a who’s-who of the period’s folk music luminaries: Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Maybelle Carter, and Peter, Paul & Mary among them. A flyer from 1965 lists the performers for the four-day event, but the flyer doesn’t list the program lineup; contemporary accounts place the performers in a different order.

A master of ceremonies for the event was festival organizer and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, whose field recordings of ethnic music are archived at the Smithsonian Institute. The duty of introducing The Paul Butterfield Blues Band fell to Lomax, and folk purist Lomax’s introduction of Butterfield’s electric ensemble was less than enthusiastic.

Jonathan Taplin, a “roadie” (equipment handler) at Newport, says that Dylan was extremely irritated by Lomax’s remarks. Dylan is reported to have said: “Well (expletive deleted) them if they think they can keep electricity out of here; I’ll do it.”

Dylan, who had always performed solo accompanied by acoustic guitar and harmonica, threw together an impromptu band consisting of guitarist Mike Bloomfield, bassist Jerome Arnold, drummer Sam Lay and organist (and future founder of the band Blood, Sweat and Tears) organist Al Kooper. One quick rehearsal was all they had time for before their performance.

Dylan’s Newport back-up band: (standing from left to right) Mike Bloomfield, Jerome Arnold, Dylan. At organ: Al Kooper. Seated at left: unknown.

When Dylan appeared onstage for his second performance at ’65s Newport Festival, he no longer looked like a “folkie.” He sported an orange shirt buttoned at the collar, a black leather jacket, and boots. Slung over his shoulder was the ’64 Strat. No one these days knows where the guitar came from; it may have been Dylan’s or it may have been borrowed. Dylan and his backup band opened with “Maggie’s Farm.” The crowd was mostly quiet during the performance, but when the song ended the mixed polite applause was broken by a solid wall of booing. A video of this performance is available at iTunes.

The trailer for the Bob Dylan DVD “The Other Side of the Mirror: Live at the Newport Folk Festival” shows an interview with an audience member that sums up the crowd reaction to Dylan’s performance: “Who needs him anymore? He’s accepted—he’s a part of—your establishment—forget him.”

A 1965 flyer for the Newport Folk Festival.

Dylan fans say that this performance changed the course of rock ’n’ roll forever. I don’t agree; in 1965, the British Invasion was well underway, and groups like The Rolling Stones and The Animals were already repurposing American blues for pop radio. If anything was changed by Dylan’s performance it was the folk music scene, which never quite recovered from Dylan’s “traitorous act.” The Newport Festival fell on hard times after 1965 and had ceased operations altogether by 1970, not to re-appear until 1985. The wake of Dylan’s Newport performance paved the way for the folk rock groups of the mid-1960s like The Byrds, Simon & Garfunkel, The Mamas and the Papas, and Crosby, Stills and Nash. These groups were an addition to, rather than a change in, the course of rock ’n’ roll.

After the Newport Festival, Dylan is known to have used the Stratocaster several more times, in recording his “Blonde on Blonde” album and with Robbie Robertson’s group, The Band. Then, the guitar went missing, along with at least two other guitars. Dylan believed they had been stolen.

Fast-forward 47 years.

Upon the death of her father, New Jersey-ite Dawn Peterson found a Stratocaster guitar and hard-shell case in her father’s attic. The case was printed with the words “Ashes and Sand Inc.” In the case were handwritten pages of song lyrics.

In the mid-1960s Peterson’s father, Victor Quinto, had been a private pilot for Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman and transported many of Grossman’s clients to gigs. At some point, Quinto found that three guitars had been left on his plane. According to Peterson, Quinto contacted Grossman about the guitars “several times” but no one ever came to pick them up. So, the guitars stayed at the Quinto home, and 47 years later, the Strat is re-discovered. It is unknown what happened to the other guitars found on the plane. 

Dylan recording with the Stratocaster.

Quinto family tradition told that the Strat was Dylan’s guitar, and last year Peterson contacted the staff at the PBS show “History Detectives” to validate her claim. Dylan’s current attorney, Orin Snyder, says that Dylan denies that the guitar is the “Newport Strat.” As the History Detectives’ investigation progressed, attorneys for both Dylan and Peterson discussed their concerns.

The guitar was inspected by vintage instrument specialist Andy Babiuk, who disassembled the guitar to verify the age of the parts, and then compared the wood grain of the guitar body and neck with the corresponding grain in photo enlargements of the Newport Strat. Wood grain, says Babiuk, is like fingerprints: no two pieces of wood are exactly alike. Babiuk says that he is “99.9-percent sure” that the guitar is the Newport Strat.

A former Dylan roadie confirmed that the labeling on the guitar case—“Ashes and Sand, Inc.” —referred to the company Dylan organized to run his tours. The name of the company was unknown to anyone but Dylan’s inner circle.

History Detectives also sought the advice of Dylan memorabilia expert Jeff Gold to authenticate the handwritten lyrics. Gold says that the handwriting and style are that of Bob Dylan, and are “obviously real.”

The History Detectives episode is here:

http://youtu.be/-IxUsnG_sko

The experts at Christie’s have reviewed the evidence and agree that the guitar is Dylan’s Newport Strat. Dylan’s attorney and Peterson have reached an agreement about the ownership of the guitar. The auction will proceed as planned.

Will the guitar bring the hoped-for $500,000? In my opinion, this price is low. The $500,000 amount is merely an anchor to start the bidding. I believe that this guitar will bring closer to $1 million. We’ll find out on Dec. 6, and once the results are in, I’ll report back.


Wayne Jordan spent more than 40 years in the music business as a performer, teacher, repairman and music store owner. In 25 years of musical instrument retailing he has bought, sold, rented or repaired thousands of pianos, band & orchestra, combo, and folk instruments. Wayne is currently a Virginia-licensed auctioneer and certified personal property appraiser. For more info, visit Wayne Jordan Auctions.

http://www.waynejordanauctions.com/

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2 Comments

  1. Tiim says:

    This is seriously an important Rock ‘n’ Roll artifact. I love this story and it is awesome that Dylan got pissed when the (apparently)stuffy Lomax was rude towards Butterfield’s group. This event may not have changed the course of Rock ‘n’ Roll history, but it is a great episode in that history and certainly catapulted Mr. Zimmerman to bigger and better things and to his icon and legendary status.