By Tony Attwood (revised March 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.
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.