Bob Dylan’s Legendary Electric Guitar on Display in Chicago

The first electric guitar Bob Dylan played live in performance – a legendary instrument which sparked uproar – is on public display at a Chicago museum until May.

The original 1964 Fender Stratocaster Dylan famously plugged in at the 1965 Newport Film Festival is the centerpiece of the American Writers Museum’s exhibit “Dylan: Electric.”

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“It’s a precious item and it’s unique,” said Carey Cranston, the museum’s president. “It’s one of a kind and it’s from a very iconic moment in American history.”

By July 25, 1965, the 24-year-old songwriter had already made a massive impact on the 1960s folk music revival movement, but that night he was famously met with a cacophony of boos following his first electrified set.

“That performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 was this incredibly creative line in the sand,” said music journalist Alan Light, the exhibit’s curator. “It’s come to represent, for every artist, following your own vision, whether it matches the expectations of your audience or not.”

Among folk purists of the mid-1960s, mixing the protest-oriented songwriting of the folk tradition with the high-flying energy of rock ‘n’ roll was practically forbidden. 

“There were clear creative battle lines that were drawn and folk music was about tradition and about acoustic instruments and very much in opposition to this rising tide of rock ‘n’ roll that was seen as silly and trivial,” Light said.

Dylan’s infamous instrument has an interesting backstory in its own right.

For decades, the family of private pilot Vic Quinto held onto the guitar after Dylan apparently left it on Quinto’s plane following the festival.

After seeing the famous guitar in a documentary, Dawn Peterson, the late pilot’s daughter, brought it to the PBS show “History Detectives” in 2012.

The show’s experts authenticated the guitar by its distinct characteristics – such as a chip near the volume knob and the instrument’s wood grain, which can be as distinct as a fingerprint, according to some experts.

After initially denying the authenticity of the guitar, Dylan’s camp settled with the pilot’s family and in December 2013, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay purchased the guitar at auction for $965,000 – the highest price for any guitar ever sold at auction.

The exhibit also features Dylan’s handwritten lyrics of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” a song with literary references to Edgar Allan Poe and Jack Kerouac, and a copy of J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” book which Dylan scribbled notes inside shortly after moving to New York in 1961.

A special area is dedicated to Dylan’s 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature award, an honor that challenged the conceptions of modern literature.

“It’s the first time they’ve really acknowledged a songwriter,” Cranston said. “So for that, to say they’re going to give the Nobel in literature, which looks at the totality of someone’s career, and take a songwriter and put them in the same caliber as some of the other writers, really elevates not just Dylan but the idea of songwriting as literature.”

The American Writers Museum’s “Dylan: Electric” exhibit has the songwriter’s famous guitar on loan from Irsay through the end of April.

Follow Evan Garcia on Twitter: @EvanRGarcia

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