When I read that someone paid $985,000 for the Fender Stratocaster that Bob Dylan played at the Newport Folk Festival, at first it kinda made sense.
Obviously that was a historic event, a turning point in Dylan’s career, one that resulted in some of the best rock music of all time and which had a profound impact on rock ‘n’ roll, and on the world at large.
But then I began to reconsider. Why is that guitar worth that kind of money? Well, you could say, because someone was willing to pay it. And I would disagree.
I think this is an example of the Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome. Or a fetishism that mythologies objects, giving them undeserving power and value.
The guitar that sold at auction for nearly a million dollars, and which Dylan supposedly played at Newport, is a 1964 Stratocaster, so Dylan could only have owned it for at most a year and a half.
Dylan’s lawyer, Orin Snyder, recently denied it was the guitar played at Newport.
“Bob has possession of the electric guitar he played at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965,” Snyder said in a statement he provided Rolling Stone. “He did own several other Stratocaster guitars that were stolen from him around that time, as were some handwritten lyrics.”
However vintage-instrument expert Andy Babiuk told Rolling Stone he’s confident it’s the guitar. He was convinced after PBS asked him to compare it to close-up color photos from Newport. “The more I looked, the more they matched,” Babiuk told Rolling Stone. “The rosewood fingerboard has distinct lighter strips. Wood grain is like a fingerprint. I’m 99.9 percent sure it’s the guitar — my credibility is on the line here.”
Babiuk has previously authenticated numerous guitars including a John Lennon Gretsch 6120 that’s been on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, and a Bob Dylan Hummingbird used by Dylan at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration.
So let’s assume the Strat sold at auction was the guitar played at Newport. It turns out that Dylan had a bunch of electric guitars he used at the time. There are pictures of Dylan playing a Fender Jazzmaster, both in the studio and on stage. In Bob Spitz’s book “Dylan An Autobiography,” he describes Dylan walking into Columbia Studio A on June 15, 1965 and plugging in a Fender Telecaster for a run through of “Like A Rolling Stone” before recording began.
So we can safely say that Dylan had at least six electric guitars he was using at the time of the Newport gig. There’s a reason Dylan had so many Fender guitars. Columbia Records owned Fender at that time, and so Dylan would have had easy access to the company’s guitars, and the company was surely happy to have their guitars associated with Dylan.
What can make a guitar really valuable? Well, if a musician uses it to compose songs that become classics. The guitar Neil Young used to write “Heart of Gold,” for instance, would be of some value, but if Neil Young had one acoustic guitar that he used from say 1964 through 1974 to write all his songs, that guitar would really be worth a lot. Neil Young himself might feel that particular guitar was key to his songwriting.
Some musicians customize their guitar, or buy a vintage guitar that’s been played for years and has a unique sound that they can’t get from just any guitar. Neil Young, for example, feels that way about Old Black, a 1953 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop that he’s had seriously customized.
But of course that isn’t the case with the off-the-shelf, year-and-a-half old Strat Dylan played that night.
Does the fact that Dylan played a Strat at Newport really mean anything? He could have easily played the Jazzmaster or a Telecaster instead, as he did at Forest Hills Stadium two and a half months later. Would those guitars be worth a million?
It would seem that simply because that was the guitar Dylan happened to play that historic night, it’s worth a fortune, and not because the guitar added anything to the performance. Well then what of the black boots Dylan wore? Or his black leather jacket? How about his shirt? A million dollars?
It’s not the guitar Dylan happened to play that matters, it’s that Bob Dylan turned his back on the rigid rules mandated by the folk music establishment and made a big statement by going electric and playing rock ‘n’ roll. It’s all about Bob Dylan, not whatever guitar he happened to play. In fact, he could have played any electric guitar.
According to Rolling Stone, Dawn Peterson, who is apparently the one who put the guitar up for auction, got it from her father, Victor Quinto, a private pilot who worked for Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, in the mid-1960s.
“After one flight, my father saw there were three guitars left on the plane,” she told Rolling Stone. “He contacted the company a few times about picking the guitars up, but nobody ever got back to him.”
It would seem, then, that those guitars were not that important. Dylan had lots of guitars. He clearly wasn’t attached to that guitar. It wasn’t a special guitar. He didn’t need that guitar to write great songs, or perform onstage. It was just a guitar he’d gotten the year before that he happened to play during his first electric gig.
Is it worth a million dollars?
As has been said before, there’s a sucker born every day.
“Like A Rolling Stone” at Newport Folk Festival, 1965:
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