July/august 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 5
Bob Dylan had done so much to inspire the revival of folk music in the early 1960s that some proclaimed him the heir to Woody Guthrie’s legacy. Some of his followers sensed a betrayal of that legacy when, on July 25, Dylan shocked the audience at the Newport Folk Festival by taking the stage in a leather jacket and leading an amplified band in an earsplitting set of rock-’n’-roll songs. Folk purists who had expected Dylan to perform alone with his familiar acoustic guitar and harmonica registered their disapproval by booing their idol. “You could hear it all over the place,” Dylan said later. “I don’t know who they were. … I mean, they must be pretty rich to go some place and boo.” By the end of the summer, Dylan’s electric music had won him new and larger audiences, and “Like a Rolling Stone” had become his first No. 1 song on the charts.
A minor traffic arrest in the Watts section of Los Angeles on August 11 sparked a six-day riot that engulfed 150 blocks and left thirty-four people dead. Watts was an almost entirely black area suffering from poverty, segregation, and 30 percent unemployment. “Negro leaders have been predicting a riot like this for three years,” said the writer Louis Lomax. “The whites think they can just bottle people up in an area like Watts and then forget all about them. It didn’t work.”
The city’s police chief dismissed the first night of violence as “nothing like what happened in New York City, where it went on for days and days.” The following evening seven thousand people launched a guerrilla war with police in the streets, looting stores and burning whole blocks before the National Guard finally appeared on August 13. Fifteen thousand guardsmen and police made four thousand arrests, and some nine hundred people ended up in the hospital. The clumsy reactions of Gov. Edmund G. Brown and Mayor Sam Yorty to the crisis made it a central issue in the 1966 race for governor, ultimately won by a conservative political newcomer, Ronald Reagan.