Ross Altman

MUSIC MAN. Ross Altman, smiling, believes the day Bob Dylan went electric was a music game-changer.

On July 25, 1965, Bob Dylan sent shockwaves through the crowd at the Newport Folk Festival, where he was headlining the last day. The folk singer stepped onto the stage with a Fender Stratocaster and played a distortion-filled set tributing Rock ‘N Roll and was practically booed off stage. 

In retrospect, many refer to this day as the moment Bob Dylan went electric, expanding the scope of folk music and giving birth to folk rock. Local folk musician Ross Altman truly believes so. 

“In four days, Dylan became the most important folk singer in America,” Altman, 68, says. “It was an amazing four days.”

This Saturday, which marks exactly 50 years since the historic day, Altman and the Found Theatre are presenting “The Folk Festival That Changed America,” featuring eight local musicians who will commemorate the original repertoire at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, which featured big names from Pete Seeger, Jean Ritchie and Theo Bikel to Lightning Hopkins, Gordon Lightfoot and Joan Baez. 

The roster Saturday includes many of Altman’s longtime friends, who will each take the stage for two covers with their own accompaniment. Local musician and writer Susie Glaze will perform songs by Gene Richards. Fingerstyle guitarist Jill Fenimore will be doing songs by Mississippi John Hurt and Gordon Lightfoot. Multi-instrumentalist Rob Sandiford will be doing songs performed by Theodore Bikel and Gordon Lightfoot. Long Beach Folk Duo Ron and Jen will be performing a song by Mimi, who is Joan Baez’s sister, and Richard Farina. Blues musician Alex Soschin will be performing songs by Son House and Reverend Gary Davis. Other performers include Tom Fair, Michael Birnbaum, Alex Soschin and Daddy Bone. 

Altman, who will be MCing, will play a few tunes by Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. 

“The whole point of this is to reinforce the range of folk music presented at the original festival,” he explains. 

Altman, who was born and raised in L.A., has a penchant for reminding the public about historical milestones. Last month, he put on an 800-year anniversary concert based on the Magna Carta in L.A. and Pasadena. This fall, he’ll be commemorating the centennial of the execution of Swedish-American labor activist and songwriter Joe Hill. 

“I don’t know where it comes from, but I have something in my genes that pays attention to these anniversaries as they relate to folk music,” Altman says, laughing. 

Altman, who has a PhD and an encyclopedic knowledge on the history of American folk music, worked as an English and speech professor for about two years. In 1980, he decided to become a folk singer and hasn’t looked back since. His stage varies from Unitarian churches to union halls to school assemblies from San Diego to Santa Barbara. 

“One of the ways I describe myself is, I turn the stage into a classroom,” he says. “I do a lot of shows where I’m essentially teaching stuff that isn’t taught in an academic setting.” 

Folk music, he explains, is rooted in social struggle. From the labor movement of the ’30s, anti-nuclear protests in the ’50s to the environmental movement of the ’70s, folk greats like Woodie Guthrie and Joni Mitchell have expressed their politically-charged sentiments through song. 

“I don’t think that’s ever going to disappear,” Altman says. “It’s a grassroots expression of how people feel about what’s going on at the time.”

As for him, his recent songs include “Lone Gunman, More or Less,” a piece about the recent massacre that took place in a black church in Charleston, S.C. It’s a song “about the various forces in South Carolina historically that almost created a sense of acceptance of the racial attitudes that the murderer had,” he explains. 

“Because (folk music popularity) happened once and with such recognition at the time, it created a permanent space for artists — grassroots artists who aren’t necessarily famous,” Altman says. “It created a space for us to continue to do this and for people to put it into context.” 

“The Folk Festival That Changed America” takes place at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Found Theater in Long Beach. Tickets are $10. Reservations are available at (562) 433-3363 or info@foundtheatre.org. For more information, visit foundtheatre.org.

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