Maggie’s Farm (1965) part II – Even the president of the United States
by Jochen Markhorst
The former President is a fan. Since 2015 Barack Obama annually publishes his Spotify playlist. On the first, his August 2015 summer holiday list, Dylan’s “Tombstone Blues” is ranked fourth on the “Summer Day List”. In August 2020, “Goodbye Jimmy Reed”, which has just been released, is among the 53 songs of the “2020 Summer Playlist”.
The president’s lists are quite eclectic, similar in colour to an average episode of Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour. If he really, really had to choose, Stevie Wonder would be his all-time favourite, but Dylan surely is a contender and does reach his personal Top 3. “There is not a bigger giant in the history of American music,” as Obama says at the 2012 Medal of Freedom ceremony. This is, of course, partly the usual trumpet of praise that goes with an award ceremony, but sincere as well. As Obama’s awe also resounds when he talks about the one time he had the chance to get to know Dylan personally.
That was in February 2010, when a Celebration of Music from the Civil Rights Movement is organised in the White House. Surprisingly, Dylan accepts an invitation. About what he will play he remains vague until the last moment, but eventually it is a breath-taking performance of “The Times They Are A-Changin'”, accompanied only by piano and double bass. Later, Obama tells Rolling Stone the details of his “meeting” with the legend.
“He was exactly as you’d expect he would be. He wouldn’t come to the rehearsal. Usually, all these guys are practicing before the set in the evening. He didn’t want to take a picture with me; usually all the talent is dying to take a picture with me and Michelle before the show, but he didn’t show up to that. He came in and played The Times They Are A-Changin’. A beautiful rendition. The guy is so steeped in this stuff that he can just come up with some new arrangement, and the song sounds completely different. Finishes the song, steps off the stage – I’m sitting right in the front row – comes up, shakes my hand, sort of tips his head, gives me just a little grin, and then leaves. And that was it – then he left. That was our only interaction with him. And I thought: That’s how you want Bob Dylan, right? You don’t want him to be all cheesin’ and grinnin’ with you. You want him to be a little skeptical about the whole enterprise. So that was a real treat.”
Two years before that, during the 2008 election campaign that will end with his first victory, Obama has already revealed part of his playlist, again to Rolling Stone, demonstrating his Dylan love:
“I have probably 30 Dylan songs on my iPod. “Maggie’s Farm” is one of my favorites during the political season. It speaks to me as I listen to some of the political rhetoric.”
… Obama thus assigning a kind of therapeutic, or at least inspirational, value to “Maggie’s Farm”. And then explicitly to its words – which he apparently interprets in a way that appeals to him.
Despite its apparent clarity and simplicity, the song, like the Very Great Dylan songs, indeed offers a multitude of interpretation possibilities. In that respect “Maggie’s Farm” has the Kafkaesque quality of the John Wesley Harding songs Dylan will write two years later.
At universities it is an intellectual finger exercise for Kafka students: “write a historical, a biographical, a Marxist and a religious interpretation of (for example) Kafka’s Der Aufbruch” – an extremely short story (145 words), written in extremely clear sentences and simple words that nevertheless allows a multitude of interpretations. A similar task has never been given to the Dylanologists, but that – obviously – does not stop the multitude of interpretations coming in.
The anti-political, socially critical interpretation is a fairly popular one. And one for which the average student of literature would not turn his hand. “Maggie’s Farm” symbolises “society”, the successive archetypes (Maggie’s brother, pa and ma) can easily be seen as social institutions, (respectively the exploitative market economy, the repressive legislator and enforcer, and the manipulating press, for example). Surrounding songs on Bringing It All Back Home, like “Gates Of Eden” and “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” could support this viewpoint; both songs can effortlessly be interpreted as expressions of systemic, anti-establishment beliefs, too.
The faction of Dylanologists who see the song as an encryption of personal, biographical worries of the artist Dylan is larger. “Maggie’s Farm” then expresses the reckoning with the folk movement, marking Dylan’s conversion to rock music and farewell to one-dimensional, finger-pointing songs. These interpreters of course point to verse fragments such as I got a head full of ideas and especially to the last verse:
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
… and find confirmation in the special circumstances of the live debut, that earth-shattering premiere at the Newport Folk Festival, in the biographical fact that Dylan played the archetypal fingerpointing song “Only A Pawn In Their Game” at Silas McGee’s Farm, and in the cynical put-down they sing while you slave.
All right and all wrong, of course – as it should be, with the Very Great Dylan songs. Dylan himself, however, sees no exceptional metaphorical power or value.
It seems that Dylan dashes this song off, casually during a spare quarter of an hour. It’s the only album track of which only one take exists, judging by The Cutting Edge (2015), the collection of all studio recordings for the magical trio Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde. For comparison: even album-filler and later B-side “On The Road Again” gets thirteen takes. The missing poetry is a further indication of an ad hoc theory; unlike most other album tracks, the lyrics of “Maggie’s Farm” contain no surrealism, no literary curiosities, no “brilliant way of rhyming and putting together refrains, and his pictorial thinking”, as the Nobel Prize Committee will characterize his mid-60s work later.
“Maggie’s Farm” is recorded at the beginning of the third and final Bringing It All Back Home session, 15 January 1965. Neither after this one and only take, nor after its release on the LP (22 March), does Dylan himself seem to recognise its quality – nor does he seem to attach any particular importance to it. In February and March, he performs on the East Coast, in Canada and in California, in April and May he tours England, but “Maggie’s Farm” does not once appear on the set list. CBS nevertheless sees something in it; in June the song is released on single in the States as well as in Europe (only to flop on both sides of the ocean).
The decision to perform it at Newport is probably opportunistic. Dylan doesn’t have a band of his own yet, and for a band scrambled together on the spot (with members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band who happen to be present) “Maggie’s Farm” is simple enough to perform without significant rehearsal time.
It’s Dylan’s first electric performance and it’s likely that he hasn’t foreseen the impact at all. Which is understandable; after all, at the same festival Paul Butterfield and Howlin’ Wolf also play electrically, and that goes without any fuzz. A year later, after being jeered at, being booed and being angrily heckled dozens of times, Dylan still has trouble understanding all this hullabaloo. He addresses the English public in London on 27 May 1966:
“What you’re just hearing here now is the sound of the songs…you’re not hearing anything else except the songs, the sound…of the words…and sounds…so, you know, you can take it or leave it. (…) I’m sick of people asking what does it mean. It means NOTHING.”
Anyway, the choice of “Maggie’s Farm” at Newport is a fortunate one. Its performance elevates the song to the canon, to one of the milestones of the 60s. The song is quoted in songs, films, newspaper articles and novels, catering establishments and beer producers borrow the name and in the 80’s, when Maggie Thatcher divides and rules, the song gets an unforeseen, further deepening and topical value. It is, obviously, covered in all corners of the music world, from bluegrass to blues to heavy metal to folk. Blues suits the song best, probably.
Eventually, Dylan did roll over; after having more or less ignored the song for ten years, it has been on the set list with great regularity since 1976 – in 2020 “Maggie’s Farm” is, according to Olof Björner, in the ninth place of Dylan’s Most Performed Songs, with 1064 performances.
And still in the twenty-first century, forty-three years after that one and only volatile take on a freezing cold Friday in New York in January ’65, even the President of the United States puts “Maggie’s Farm” on a pedestal.
Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:
- Blood on the Tracks: Dylan’s Masterpiece in Blue
- Blonde On Blonde: Bob Dylan’s mercurial masterpiece
- Where Are You Tonight? Bob Dylan’s hushed-up classic from 1978
- Desolation Row: Bob Dylan’s poetic letter from 1965
- Basement Tapes: Bob Dylan’s Summer of 1967
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