Maggie’s Farm

Commentary

Dylan introduced his audience to his new rock ’n’ roll persona with a spirited version of Maggie’s Farm at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.

At the time, Dylan was the darling of the folk revival movement. He and Joan Baez were its biggest stars. It’s hard to believe now, in a time when folk music has all but disappeared, but from the late fifties to the early-sixties folk music was king. Young people listened to folk music and young musicians copied the folk masters, such as Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and Pete Seeger. Long forgotten folk and blues musicians, such as Mississippi John Hurt and Mance Lipscomb, returned to the stage to play before large audiences of worshipful young fans.

Not surprisingly, many folk fans were not pleased with Dylan’s sudden switch to rock ‘n’ roll. Although first hand reports conflict, many claim that Dylan and his band – mostly members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, including the acclaimed guitarist Michael Bloomfield – were booed. Some claim that folksinger Pete Seeger was so enraged that he threatened to cut the electrical cables in order to curtail the performance (Seeger denies this). Others claim that the booing had more to do with the poor sound system than the fan’s displeasure with the music. Organist Al Kooper thinks the length of the set was the main issue.  Whatever the truth of this particular incident, there is no doubt that Dylan and his band were booed often and loudly during their tour of the US and Europe.

Dylan spoke about the crowd’s reaction in a 1965 press conference in San Francisco.

Well there was booing. You can’t tell when the booing is going to come up, can’t tell at all, ha,ha. It comes up, it comes up in the weirdest, strangest, places. And when it comes up it’s quite a thing in itself. I think there’s a little boo in all of us. Ya, that was at Newport. Well, I did this very crazy thing,so you know? I mean, I didn’t really know what was going to happen. But, ah, they certainly booed, I’ll tell you that. You could hear it all over the place. I don’t know who they were though. And I’m sure, whoever it was, did it twice as loud as they normally would.

Maggie’s Farm was an excellent choice to showcase his new rock styling. The rock sound is a perfect complement to the song’s lyrics which, as Tim Riley so aptly describes, were the sixties counterculture’s “war cry”. The song packs a wallop, and Dylan used it to jump start his live shows for several years. The sound of the song evolved over time from the almost rockabilly style on Bringing to a full-blown hard-rock thumper later in his career.

Underneath the rock ’n’ roll ornamentation however, Maggie’s Farm is a blues song. In most blues the first line of each verse is repeated. The first verse states the narrator’s basic complaint. The next several verses detail exactly why the narrator feels the way he does. The final verse neatly summarizes the situation. In this case:

Well, I try my best
To be just like I am,
But everybody wants you
To be just like them.

Many have speculated that the title of the song was inspired by the traditional Parchman’s Farm.

I’m sitting over here on Parchman Farm
I’m sitting over here on Parchman Farm
I’m sitting over here on Parchman Farm
Ain’t never done no man no harm

Well, I’m putting that cotton in a never-full sack
Well, I’m putting that cotton in a never-full sack
Well, I’m putting that cotton in a never-full sack
A twelve-gauge shotgun at my back

I’m sitting over here on Parchman Farm
I’m sitting over here on Parchman Farm
I’m sitting over here on Parchman Farm
Ain’t never done no man no harm

Here’s Bukka White’s version.

And the more similar sounding version by John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers.

Other Dylan scholars argue that Maggie was adopted from Penny’s Farm, another old blues song. Robert Shelton points out the similarities between the melodies. Jeff Place, in his Supplemental Notes to the Selections piece included in the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music (a collection all Dylan fans should study), agrees with Shelton. The Bentley Brothers do a nice version of it on the Anthology. Definitely worth a listen.

Some have speculated that the name came from Magee’s Farm, the correctional institute where Dylan performed Only a Pawn in Their Game during a trip through the South that Dylan made (at the suggestion of Pete Seeger and others), as part of a civil rights effort to promote voter registration. A clip of this well-known performance can be seen in Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home.

William McKeen, in his book Highway 61: A Father and Son Journey through the Middle of America (a fun read by the way), says the reason Dylan looks a little nervous in this performance is because members of the Ku Klux Klan were standing right in front of him, just out of camera range. That would make me nervous! I’ve never read heard this story from any other  source, so I’m skeptical.

Dylan has performed this song many times throughout his career. Not surprisingly, the song turns up on several official live recordings and thousands of bootlegs. The 1965 Newport Folk Festival version appears on the No Direction Home soundtrack. Other versions are included on Real Live and At Budokan. The definitive version to my ears is on Hard Rain, the live collection taken from a Dylan TV special released in 1976. Dylan’s angry vocals, Scarlet Rivera’s gypsy-style violin and especially Mick Ronson’s almost over-the-top lead guitar deliver the song to another level.

Can’t forget the awful Bodokdan.

 


Lyrics

I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.
No, I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.
Well, I wake in the morning,
Fold my hands and pray for rain.
I got a head full of ideas
That are drivin’ me insane.
It’s a shame the way she makes me scrub the floor.
I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.

I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s brother no more.
No, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s brother no more.
Well, he hands you a nickel,
He hands you a dime,
He asks you with a grin
If you’re havin’ a good time,
Then he fines you every time you slam the door.
I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s brother no more.

I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s pa no more.
No, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s pa no more.
Well, he puts his cigar
Out in your face just for kicks.
His bedroom window
It is made out of bricks.
The National Guard stands around his door.
Ah, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s pa no more.

I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s ma no more.
No, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s ma no more.
Well, she talks to all the servants
About man and God and law.
Everybody says
She’s the brains behind pa.
She’s sixty-eight, but she says she’s twenty-four.
I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s ma no more.

I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.
No, I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.
Well, I try my best
To be just like I am,
But everybody wants you
To be just like them.
They sing while you slave and I just get bored.
I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.

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