On Sunday I wrote a post about helping Public Television’s History Detectives investigate a Fender Stratocaster guitar allegedly played by Bob Dylan at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, when he famously “went electric.” The people at History Detectives had asked me not to reveal the results of the investigation before the show airs, next Tuesday, July 17. But yesterday Rolling Stone, The New York Times, and the Associated Press revealed the results–so here goes…
Late last year, I was contacted by a History Detectives producer who told me a viewer had approached them about a guitar that had purportedly belonged to Bob Dylan–and was possibly the Newport guitar. The woman’s late father had been a private pilot who had flown Dylan to concerts in the mid-60’s, and she told the producers that the guitar had been left in her father’s plane after a trip. She claimed he’d tried to return it, but never got a call back from Dylan’s office. She also had her father’s phone book with Dylan’s phone number in Woodstock, and few snapshots he’d taken of Dylan at an airport.
The guitar case was stenciled “Property of Ashes & Sand”–Dylan and his manager Albert Grossman’s touring company during the era (and a little known name)– and there were some typed and handwritten lyrics and manuscripts in the case. Howard Kramer, curatorial director at the Rock and roll Hall of Fame had recommended me as someone who could tell them whether these were actually by Dylan. Andy Babiuk, the guitar expert for the Hall of Fame and author of Beatles Gear (the definitive guide to the Beatles equipment,) had agreed to evaluate the guitar, and so I agreed to take a look.
The History Detectives producer emailed me high resolution scans of thirteen pages of manuscripts, and very soon after opening them, I felt confident these were the real deal. Over the years, I’ve examined a lot of Dylan handwriting and manuscripts, some real, a lot of it forgeries. And some of the forgeries were quite good, with a very compelling back story. So you really have to do your homework with this kind of thing. But these just looked good. And had a lot of similarity to a collection I’d seen a few years ago. So I set to work.
After a few hours of examining the pages carefully, I was convinced these were indeed authentic. Dylan’s typing and handwriting are very idiosyncratic, and I saw many things I’d seen before. His handwriting is ever changing–just like his music. Years ago, I hired a former Treasury Department forensic document examiner to evaluate some Dylan documents for a lawsuit I filed. He told me he’d never seen anyone who’s handwriting changed so dramatically over time; and instilled in me the need to compare “questioned” documents to “known” writings from the same time period–and that this was essential in Dylan’s case. Fortunately, I had some authentic “exemplars” from the Newport era.
It was immediately clear these weren’t lyrics for well known songs. There were phrases I recognized, though, so I typed each line into Google, one at a time. I found there were three fairly complete lyrics, all for unreleased songs recorded in the Blonde on Blonde era–“Jet Pilot,” “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” and “Medicine Sunday” (an early version of “Temporary Like Achilles.”) But the eureka moment came when I notice the line “watching the six white horses pass.” Dylan sings the lyric “Well, six white horses, that you did promise” in his classic song “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” from Blonde on Blonde. I’m fortunate to own his manuscript for that song. So here was an opportunity to do a direct comparison.
In the “Absolutely Sweet Marie” manuscript, Dylan writes “Six flying horses” and above the word “flying,” writes “white” and “the,”refining his lyric. Though the words weren’t in exactly the same order, the two examples of “Six white horses”–both written during the Blonde on Blonde era were a Rosetta Stone moment. I photoshopped the phrase from my manuscript to put the words in the same order and it was a perfect match. The producer had asked if I could come up with a way of illustrating to viewers why I felt these lyrics and manuscripts were written by Dylan, and this was surely it.
I filmed my segment in New York City at the end of last year, and it in early January it was Andy Babiuk’s turn. To determine if this guitar was the guitar played by Dylan at Newport, Andy needed a very clear photograph of Dylan onstage with the guitar. And that was a problem. We’d seen many photos and the film of Dylan at this legendary show, but everything was in black & white and shot from a distance–you really couldn’t see much detail. Here, History Detectives really shined. Pulling off a near miracle, producer Tom McNamara discovered some previously unknown color photographs of Dylan at Newport, on the Flickr site of a fan who attended the festival, John Rudoff. Rudoff, a teenager at the time, had been up right up against the stage that night, and his photographs were extremely clear and detailed. Tom contacted Rudoff and obtained large blow ups of the photographs, and brought them to Andy’s shop in Rochester, NY, along with the guitar.
Andy took the guitar apart, confirmed it was built in 1964 and was all original, and then carefully compared the wood grain on the guitar’s body and neck to Rudoff’s photographs. Andy explained that wood grain is like a fingerprint–no two pieces of wood have identical grain. And he found the grain on the guitar and the neck matched the guitar in the photographs perfectly. This was indeed the Dylan Newport Stratocaster.
Last week when Andy and I saw the program for the first time, we learned the pilot’s daughter had written to Dylan’s management in 2005, asking that he release all claims to the guitar. Dylan’s lawyers had written back declining and asking for it to be returned. History Detectivesexplains all this in the program, even showing the correspondence, and notes that it’s unclear after all this time exactly who owns the guitar. That takes us to…yesterday, when Dylan’s lawyer, Orin Snyder, issued the following statement: “Bob has possession of the electric guitar he played at The Newport Folk Festival in 1965. He did own several other Stratocaster guitars that were stolen from him around that time, as were some handwritten lyrics. In addition, Bob recalls driving to the Newport Folk Festival, along with two of his friends, not flying.” (This last part is irrelevant, as Dylan was pictured a month later at Forest Hills, NY playing an identical Stratocaster.)
It’s unclear if Dylan or his attorney have actually seen the History Detectives segment, but a number of writers have previewed the segment and wrote about it today (links below.) The consensus seems to side with the History Detectives‘ assessment–that this is indeed the Newport guitar. The New York Times reported “The evidence the guitar may have belonged to Mr. Dylan during that period is strong: the case is stenciled with the name of his touring company, Ashes and Sand Inc., and lyrics found inside the case appear to be in his handwriting. But the crucial evidence is an appraiser’s assessment that the wood grain on the guitar’s body matches the wood grain visible in photographs of the guitar taken at the historic concert.” “The producers of the show, however, say Mr. Dylan must be mistaken…They added that those working on the show would “welcome the opportunity to examine the guitar which is currently in Mr. Dylan’s possession.”
It’s ironic and yet somehow fitting that the controversy and intrigue surrounding Dylan’s “going electric” at Newport, 47 years ago, continues. Don’t miss the show. I think you’ll be convinced.
History Detectives, Season 10 Premiere. Tuesday July 17. 9:00/8:00 central. (According to one online article, History Detectives will be available for viewing the day after broadcast on the PBS Video site and PBS mobile apps for iPhone and iPad.)