Hard times in New York Town; Dylan re-writing rural classics for the urban chic.

by Tony Attwood

The fourth and final song from Dylan in 1961 is “Hard Times in New York Town” which takes the melody, accompaniment and opening of “Down on Penny’s Farm” and then instead of making it about hard times for rural workers, turns it into a satire on tough life for people in the cities.   Thus it both parodies the music of 40 years before while at the same time offering a new perspective – a perspective that was developed in songs such as Man on the street.   With that song and Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues Dylan is saying to his audience, that music can be used to make fun of, and point out more seriously, the level of problems that exists in the city.

Put another way he is saying, a lot of the blues was about rural poverty, but there are songs to be made about urban poverty too – either seriously as with Man on the Street or as satire.

But at the same time he is saying that the musical forms that existed before the war can be used now to point out what is wrong with the world around us, while occasionally giving us a smile.   The smile is greater if we realise exactly what he has done (transforming a rural song into an urban song), but even if we don’t realise, it is still an interesting development.

First off here is “Down on Penny’s Farm” – this is one of the earliest recordings still widely available, recorded here by the Bentley Boys of whom very little is known.

It has been said that that this song is also the inspiration for the 1965 song ‘Maggie’s Farm’.  I’ll need to revisit my review of “Maggie’s Farm” to try and work that suggestion through.

Meanwhile here’s the opening verse of the original…
.
Come you ladies and gentlemen, and listen to my song,
I’ll sing it to you right, but you might think it’s wrong;
May make you mad, but I mean no harm,
It’s just about the renters on Penny’s farm.
It’s a-hard times in the country,
Out on Penny’s farm.

And now Dylan’s re-write

Come you ladies and you gentlemen, a-listen to my song
Sing it to you right, but you might think it’s wrong
Just a little glimpse of a story I’ll tell
’Bout an East Coast city that you all know well
It’s hard times in the city
Livin’ down in New York town

I’m not enough of an expert on American folk music of the 1920s (in fact I am not an expert on it at all) nor on rural American in the 1920s (ditto) to know if George Penny existed, or if the name is just a symbol for every rotten farmland owner, but certainly the original song tore into him…

Hasn’t George Penny got a flattering mouth?
Move you to the country in a little log house;
Got no windows but the cracks in the wall;
He’ll work you all the summer and rob you in the fall.
It’s a-hard times in the country,
Out on Penny’s farm.

and later

Here’s George Penny, he’ll come into town
With a wagon load of peaches, not a one of them sound;
He’s got to have his money or somebody’s check;
Pay him for a bushel and you don’t get a peck.
It’s a-hard times in the country,
Out on Penny’s farm.

and at the end, when the mortgage money is demanded

Down in his pocket with a trembling hand,
“Can’t pay you all, but I’ll pay you what I can.”
Then to the telephone, the merchant makes a call,
He’ll put you on the chain gang, (if) you don’t pay it all.
It’s a-hard times in the country,
Out on Penny’s farm.

Pete Seeger also recorded the song – this recording is from 1950

And there are plenty more recordings around.

So what Bob Dylan did was take this and update it to become a contemporary piece about his adopted city.  The humour is simple but effective – New York is a lovely friendly city, just watch people knock you down and then kick you again.

Old New York City is a friendly old town
From Washington Heights to Harlem on down
There’s a-mighty many people all millin’ all around
They’ll kick you when you’re up and knock you when you’re down
It’s hard times in the city
Livin’ down in New York town

The point is that it is just as hard living in New York and being exploited by the rich as it was in the 20s in the rural areas.

Well, it’s up in the mornin’ tryin’ to find a job of work
Stand in one place till your feet begin to hurt
If you got a lot o’ money you can make yourself merry
If you only got a nickel, it’s the Staten Island Ferry
And it’s hard times in the city
Livin’ down in New York town

New York has got the reputation of the place to be, sophisticated, exciting etc etc but really its a horrible place.

I’ll take all the smog in Cal-i-for-ne-ay
’N’ every bit of dust in the Oklahoma plains
’N’ the dirt in the caves of the Rocky Mountain mines
It’s all much cleaner than the New York kind
And it’s hard times in the city
Livin’ down in New York town

Finally however Dylan predicts that he will be ok, no matter what….

So all you newsy people, spread the news around
You c’n listen to m’ story, listen to m’ song
You c’n step on my name, you c’n try ’n’ get me beat
When I leave New York, I’ll be standin’ on my feet
And it’s hard times in the city
Livin’ down in New York town

In the recording below Dylan performed this on a radio show with Cynthia Gooding.  At the end of the recording she was, “When you are rich and famous are you still going to wear the hat?”   Dylan says in reply, “I’m never gonna be rich and famous.”

 

The Discussion Group

We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase in, on your Facebook page or go to https://www.facebook.com/groups/254617038225146/  It is also a simple way of staying in touch with the latest reviews on this site.

The Chronology Files

There are reviews of Dylan’s compositions from all parts of his life, up to the most recent writings, but of late I have been trying to put these into chronological order, and fill in the gaps as I work.

All the songs reviewed on this site are also listed on the home page in alphabetical order – just scroll down a bit once you get there

 

 

 

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2 Responses to Hard times in New York Town; Dylan re-writing rural classics for the urban chic.

  1. Larry Fyffe says:

    A fine piece, Mr, Attwood. The reason you don’t get the obvious link to Maggie’s Farm is in your review of that Dylan song you stress its particular expression of dissatisfaction with his being stuck inside of the folk protest movement, but there is also in those lyrics a universalized look at the exploitation of others by the money-hungry as in
    “Foot Of Pride.”

  2. TonyAttwood says:

    Thanks Larry. It is on my list to go back and review. One of the great things about the blog format is that I can change my mind and re-write the review!

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