The Newport Folk Festival was created as an offshoot from the Newport Jazz Festival in 1959. Born during a period of folk-revival and developed alongside the civil rights movement, artists like Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Odessa strummed acoustic instruments and sang poetic lyrics in the great American folk tradition. Then, in 1965, Bob Dylan shocked the crowd. He showed up with an electric guitar and a band. People got MAD.
There are two competing cultural attitudes at play here. In the traditionalist folk camp, there was a status quo to defend. They had created a festival that was effectively a live-action museum. In what we’ll call the Dylan camp, there was an evolutionary expectation of musicians to reinvent the status quo. His career had already moved on from his prior Newport performances, and he was there to perform his new work.*
The question to ask is: was Dylan hired to re-create his prior work or to showcase his current work? Which has more value? Who was it most valuable to?
All cultures have embedded attitudes toward change. These attitudes show up when cultures get shocked – kind of like when an electric guitar shows up at a folk festival. If the status quo is expected to return, then resisting change is a winning strategy. If we know a rubber band will snap back to its original size, all we need to do is patiently stay the course. If, however, the status quo is expected to evolve into something new, then embracing change is the winning strategy. The rubber band could snap, stay taught, or even take on a new shape. Neither strategy works optimally in both environments.
In between all of our professional (and personal) relationships are where cultural attitudes exist. There will always be areas where we want to set up traditional museums because they make people feel comfortable. Likewise, we live in a messy and unpredictable world where constant adaptation will be required of us. There will always be areas where we want to experiment with our new stuff to blaze the trail forward.
If the goal is purely survival, we can defend the traditionalist strategy. The Newport Folk Festival is still going on. The value in keeping to tradition accrues to the festival operators and loyal attendees. If the goal is transformative success, we have to strategically embrace change. Bob Dylan continued to push musical boundaries well beyond that 1965 performance. The value in breaking tradition accrues to the artists and the part of our culture that desires new-new things. Electric Dylan at Newport paved the way towards Woodstock and other American festivals.
We can and should ask ourselves what it is that we are trying to do: recreate the prior work, or showcase the new work? We want that answer ingrained into our culture, conscientiously. The difference will ultimately show up in either our survival or our transformative success.**
*Semi-ironically, this is exactly how the jazz festival that spawned the folk festival functions. Musicians were invited to perform and welcome to be as progressive or traditional as they liked.
**for more on this concept, see Seth Godin’s book, “Survival Is Not Enough”