Bob Dylan’s Maggie’s Farm. 3 very different versions; but why play it so often?

By Tony Attwood (revised March 2013 and again June 2018)

Between 1965 and 2009 Bob Dylan performed Maggie’s Farm 1051 times on stage – often as an opening song; an interesting outcome for a song that was a last minute addition to  “Bringing it all back home.”  The story goes it nearly didn’t make the cut.

Now having an opening piece that you feel comfortable with just to get the band going is a very common ploy for rock musicians; you can do it with eyes closed, and it gives the engineers a chance to play with the balance, while the audience is still getting used to the overall sound.

That’s understandable, but still, over 1000 times for what sounds to me like a rather ordinary song?

Here’s an early version in which the song is reduced to two chords but brightened by a really powerful lead guitar

Compare and contrast with what had happened by the time he got to this version

The quality of this final version is not quite spot on, but it illustrates the point of just how much Bob has got out of this song over the years

Now, here’s the original review, with a few modifications added in 2013.

What is it that makes Dylan stay with Maggie’s Farm? 

Hardly a tour goes by without it being wheeled out, it has been on over half a dozen albums and it was part of the notorious Newport Festival programme where the sound system produced a noise that excluded Dylan’s voice.  Plus the generally ignored fact that it is actually not a very interesting piece of music.  So why do we still get given it?

Musically it’s a variant 12 bar blues with very little by way of chordal change – just one chord change from the tonic to the dominant in most versions – and even that cut out on the live version on No Direction Home.

Most commentators see this as a protest against the folk-protest movement.  While folk-protest protested against the stylized thought and life styles of straight culture, so, it is argued, Maggie’s Farm protests against the stylized thought and life style of protest culture.  Dylan is saying “I’m not going to be part of this, any more than I am going to be part of mainstream culture.”

On such an analysis the electric music makes sense in that it is essentially dull and repetitious – which the man forced to follow the views of others (or indeed working manually on the farm) might well feel.  The farm incidentally is supposedly a pun on Silas McGee’s Farm, where Dylan had performed in 1963.

So far, so good, but the problem with an uninspiring piece of music which makes the point about the fixed attitudes of both sides of the argument, is that it remains an uninspiring piece of music, no matter how many times you play it.  The singer might well have a “headful of ideas, That are drivin’ me insane” but that still doesn’t mean either that the music has to be so uninteresting, or the piece performed so often for the message to get across.

The clue as to Dylan’s attitude comes perhaps with the fact that although it is not necessarily the first song in a performance, it is an early song – a statement about what this is all about.  In that case it is a statement saying, “no ideas are fixed, we break them all down.”

Whether, “Then he fines you every time you slam the door,” actually is a note about a folk club where people are as constrained in their behaviour as in any other form of life, we’ll probably never know – but in the end that’s still not the main point.

What we actually have is a contribution to a much more interesting debate.  Pre-Electric-Dylan the “rule” was that black blues musicians played the electric guitar, but white protest musicians played the acoustic.  That was one of the strangest conventions there ever was, with strong racist as well as musical undertones.  For pointing out the absurdity of this situation, Dylan deserves all the accolades.   But maybe there could have been a better vehicle for this than Maggie’s Farm.

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

In this vision of the song, Dylan is comparing the musician who is trapped into a particular mode of expressing himself (white folk protest must be acoustic, black protest and blues can be electric) – and is slavery of a kind.  The use of the word “slavery” is telling here because obviously many black singers playing electric blues are descended from actual slaves.  (Sorry for being so obvious here, but somehow in an earlier version of this article that concept didn’t come across). 

So, I ain’t going to work on Maggie’s Farm no more, means, I am not going to be part of the conventions of music any more, because to be so is just boring.

This explanation, although obviously a supposition, at least makes sense in terms of the song, the fact that it is played with electric guitars, and the fact that it has been used so often by Dylan as an opening to concerts.  Here is an explanation as to why – because this song is the introduction to all the other songs that follow.  So of course it is the introduction.

 This review of Maggie’s Farm was updated in March 2013.

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The site is developing its own theoretical approach to the music of Bob Dylan.  You can read about that approach as it evolves here.  There are details of the author, and the context of these reviews here.     The index of all the songs reviewed is here.

 

This entry was posted in At Boudakan, Bringing it all Back Home, Essential Bob Dylan, Greatest Hits Volume 2, Hard Rain, No Direction Home, The Songs. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Bob Dylan’s Maggie’s Farm. 3 very different versions; but why play it so often?

  1. Tony Reid says:

    A lot of old blues songs stay on the tonic all the way through to the last 4 bars, just as this one does. So it is no more ‘monotonous’ musically than some blues songs, especially if you bear in mind that early blues lyrics repeat over the first 8 bars. Dylan’s lyrics are anything but monotonous in this respect. Also, having played this song both in a band setting and solo busking, the rhythm can be expressed in a very driving manner, which adds to the musical interest of the song. I found that I never tired of playing this song in a busking context, mainly as I can relate so strongly to the lyrics, but also because it is so easy to lay down a driving rhythmical groove (played in E, with the main chord being E7, played on the 5th position using open low E, B on the 7th fret and E on the same fret of the lower 2 strings for bass lines to push the rhythm along). As with most of the Dylan songs that I know, if you play them repeatedly over time and in different contexts, in different states of mind (and in different stages of inebriation LOL!), the various meanings open up and become real in the moment as they are expressed. Hard to say if there is any one true meaning. Like all great art there are layers of meaning and each person can take something of their own from the experience.
    Thanks for the great website, great info and insights!
    Cheers,
    Tony

  2. Rick says:

    I’ve never thought of this song as anything more then moving on from folk to rock. The same with the restaurant dialogue in Highlands, can’t be who you want me to be.

  3. This link is included in The Bob Dylan Project at: http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/389/Maggie's-Farm (Additional Information)

  4. Larry fyffe says:

    Making nearly every song into an autobiographical comment by Dylan is to narrow its meaning too much; it is indeed too early written to be about Maggie Thatcher, but fits in with the exploitation of wage earner by the bosses of industry, nevertheless. Were a listener to know nothing of Dylan’s feelings of being creatively constricted by protest singing, the song still stands as a song of political protest as well as one of personal frustration.
    The political and personal are not completely
    separate domains. Many of Dylan’s songs are double-edged in this way. A song to be successful is writtten in such a creative way that it really
    does not require the listener to know anything
    about the writer’s personal life to find the lyrics meaningful.

  5. hans altena says:

    This song did not make the cut for Bringing it all Back Home? What do you mean? It was the double knock out with the rocking Subterranean Homesick Blues as openers for that Album full of genius, with the first followed directly by She Belongs to Me and Maggies Farm followed by Love Minus Zero/No Limit, both poetic introspective songs, thus getting the message of the concept crystal clear from the beginning. And Maggies Farm just as SHB had that punch combined with scathing lyrics that engraved them into your head, so you did not even have to learn how to sing them, they were fastly engraved into your memory and you just sang along.

  6. Maggie’s Farm is and always was a great song. A classic Dylan song. And it was too on Bringing It All Back Home! (unless substituting the word “in” for “it” was more than just sloppy editing somehow).

  7. TonyAttwood says:

    Thank you for correcting my mistake.

  8. This review is Much much much MUCH too narrow and literal!
    Maggie’s Farm is everywhere. Every time some dumb polititian or bureaucrat tries to lay down ‘the rules’. Every time stupidity blocks progress and stifles indivualism. Maggie’s Farm IS a protest song against all the forces that hold us back. I tried singing along to it once to a security guard who was trying to stop me dancing to it at a Dylan show. The man was looking in the wrong direction. Bob Dylan was on stage and he was trying to stop somebody dancing! He didn’t get the deeper meaning of course. Maggie’s minions never do.

    I got a head full of ideas that are driving me insane!!!!!!!

  9. hans kramer says:

    https://vimeo.com/20567315

    maggie starts at 5:20

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