by Jochen Markhorst
II Ridin’ in a buggy, Miss Mary Anne
Peggy Seeger has many merits, obviously, and deserves to be knighted for her own contributions to music history as well, but surely her main claim to fame is and remains that she inspired Ewan MacColl to write “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”. Which is perhaps somewhat ironic, given her decades-long fight for women’s rights and her feminist fire, but presumably she herself would be at peace with that feat; Peggy, above all, has an unshakeable respect for songs. And “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” is, after all, an indestructible song from the stratosphere. Heck, she even named her own autobiography after the song. And she loved Ewan MacColl, let’s not forget that.
Her love for Dylan seems to run a little less deep. The story that both Joan Baez and Bob Dylan stalked her for an autograph in 1961 is amusing though not very watertight, and by now belongs to folklore. As is the story that both MacColl and Peggy, who may indeed both be labelled folksnobs, would have felt and expressed disdain for Dylan. In Howard Sounes’ Down The Highway (2001), she recalls Dylan’s visit in December ’62 to the club MacColl and she ran in London, The Singers Club in Holborn;
“He seemed lost without a microphone, as plenty of U.S.A. performers did in our nonwired clubs. Ewan and I were rather standoffish at that time and perhaps we were not welcoming enough.”
Twenty years later, in the magazine Uncut on the occasion of Dylan’s 80th birthday, she tries to nuance her unwelcoming attitude slightly, but is not too successful at that:
“Not long after, he came to the UK and performed at the Singers Club. But nobody could hear him because we didn’t have microphones and his voice wasn’t loud enough. Some people have since said that he was given the cold shoulder, but I don’t think that’s true. It was just that at that time we were singing pretty much folk songs or highly political songs in our club. Bob Dylan’s songs fell halfway in between. It was a new kind of song.”
However, other sources such as the also present Martin Carthy, A.L. Lloyd and Anthea Joseph could apparently hear it just fine and all recall, independently, that Dylan played “Masters Of War”, “Blowin’ In The Wind” and presumably an early version of “Ballad Of Hollis Brown”. It does look a bit as if Peggy, as the daughter of musicologist Charles and composer Ruth, sister of Mike Seeger and half-sister of Pete Seeger, and partner of Ewan MacColl, sixty years on still is having some trouble admitting that she at the time did not recognise the extraordinary, earth-shattering power of three of Dylan’s all-time greatest songs while she was standing next to them. Like in her autobiography First Time Ever (2017), where she makes no mention of the not insignificant music-historical fact of Dylan’s repeated visits to her club and the subsequent creation of songs like “Hard Rain” and “Girl Of The North Country”. Indeed, Dylan is not mentioned at all. Well alright, one time, quite indirectly though, when she recounts with slightly awkward smugness how she manages to get out from under a fine. In a rather implausibly embellished anecdote:
“A handsome young policeman sticks his head in the window and asks if I know how fast I was going. My Maggie could indeed gallop at full tilt. I admit that I only glanced at the speedometer when I saw the blue lights. 95 mph on a 65 mph road. No, officer, I’m a musician and I’m very sorry and I was writing a song in my head and I wasn’t paying attention and his face lights up. I write songs too! What’s your song about? Off we went, commiserating on the difficulties of putting thoughts and emotions into verse and melody. You play folk music? Do you know Bobby Dylan and Joanie Baez? He was impressed that before they were Bobby and Joanie they’d both asked for my autograph, but he zipped back to our songs. He just wanted some tips. He let me off with a warning.”
Yes, the Realm of Fantasy is a very nice place to dwell, filled with Things That Never Happened. Unfortunately, Peggy Seeger’s memoir is larded with this kind of blatantly pumped up reveries.
Anyway, vice versa, there has always been respect and admiration. In interviews and in his autobiography Chronicles, Dylan usually mentions her among names like Bill Monroe and Jean Ritchie, artists he enjoyed listening to. Indeed, songs that are in Peggy’s repertoire in the early 1960s can be heard throughout Dylan’s oeuvre. “The Wagoner’s Lad”, “Pretty Saro”, “Girl Of Constant Sorrow”, “The Death Of Queen Jane”, “Railroad Bill”… and again in this third verse of “Western Road”;
Have you seen, have you seen, have you seen Miss Mary Anne? Have you seen, have you seen, have you seen Miss Mary Anne? Well I want to tell you that's one kind of woman, who is missing her man
The engine falters, by the sound of it. On the spot, Dylan decides to start the third stanza with “Have you seen…” but then his improvisational skills let him down for a moment. In haste, he fills the bars with a double repeat of have you seen, and then the associations lead him via “Baltimore” from both previous stanzas to “Miss Mary Anne”, which must have been prompted by Peggy Seeger:
Ridin’ in a buggy, Miss Mary Jane, Miss Mary Jane I’ve got a house in Baltimore, in Baltimore, in Baltimore I’ve got a house in Baltimore, and it's full of chicken pie
… “Ridin’ In A Buggy”, the old folksong/nursery rhyme that has been in Seeger’s repertoire since the 1950s. The purist Peggy would presumably raise her finger at Dylan’s name change (from “Miss Mary Jane” to “Miss Mary Anne”), but then probably accept Dylan’s obvious excuse – after all, during the 1960s, “Mary Jane” has become an insider’s wink at marijuana. Or actually already no longer an “insider’s wink”, but almost colloquial language; even The Everly Brothers sing it on their under-appreciated 1967 flop The Everly Brothers Sing:
Clouds so sweet, cloud my mind girl And I don't know, what way I'll go girl But I don't care no more I've got my Mary Jane And I'm secure once more I've got my Mary Jane
“Mary Jane”, the trippy opening of Side B, and like most songs on the record an admittedly overproduced (it’s 1967, after all), but otherwise fine song. The decision to release it on single, hoping to attract a new, hipper audience is defensible (but sadly failed miserably).
Dylan, incidentally, would quote Peggy’s “Ridin’ In A Buggy” more correctly and respectfully some 30 years later, on Time Out Of Mind, in “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven”; I was riding in a buggy with Miss Mary-Jane / Miss Mary-Jane got a house in Baltimore.
Anyway, today, on this late Thursday evening 13 February 1969 in Nashville, it seems more than likely that Dylan’s feverishly meandering brain arrives at “Miss Mary Anne” via Baltimore – although the proximity of Johnny Cash could also be a trigger, of course. And that his “The Blizzard” from Sings The Ballads Of The True West (1965) bubbles up, the tragic countdown song of the traveller who is seven miles, five miles, three miles, one mile away from his beloved Mary Anne, only to be found frozen to death the next morning… He was just a hundred yards from Mary Anne. On the other hand: that’s no “Miss”.
Either way, she is not a keeper. Either a tired Dylan loses concentration, or he regrets the name choice after just one verse, as she has been renamed already in the next, last verse of this improvised trifle:
Look down the street on Friday and found out she was gone I looked for her on Thursday but she has moved along Miss Maggie Anne, has anybody seen Miss Maggie Anne? Well let me tell you that's one woman One woman who's sure missing her man
The well is starting to dry up. Half-heartedly, Dylan seems to want to quickly improvise a countdown song, or at least a countdown couplet, one of those that count down the weekdays. An easy way out, though often enough it makes for wonderful songs. “Re-Enlistment Blues” by Merle Travis from 1953, for instance, Etta James’s irresistible “Seven Day Fool” (1961), “Stormy Monday” and “Friday On My Mind”. And “I Got Stripes”, of course, by the inevitable Johnny Cash, lovingly stolen from Lead Belly’s upbeat prison song “On A Monday” from ’39.
But Dylan seems to have exhausted his resources. After one line he has already lost count (going from Friday to Thursday), after the second line Mary Anne has changed to Maggie Anne, and after three lines Dylan has lost the storyline: the untraceable Maggie/Mary Anne who has just run off to the dismay of the abandoned narrator, suddenly is the abandoned one herself in the last line: that’s one woman who’s sure missing her man.
Yeah well, who cares. “Western Road” is just an unserious throwaway anyway. But 50 years later it does give Dylanologists a nice, fleeting glimpse into the inner jukebox of a Nobel Prize-winning grandmaster. Which in itself is a merit, still.
Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books, in English, Dutch and German, 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
- Mississippi: Bob Dylan’s midlife masterpiece
- Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits
- John Wesley Harding: Bob Dylan meets Kafka in Nashville
- Tombstone Blues b/w Jet Pilot: Dylan’s lookin’ for the fuse
- Street-Legal: Bob Dylan’s unpolished gem from 1978
- Bringing It All Back Home: Bob Dylan’s 2nd Big Bang
- Time Out Of Mind: The Rising of an Old Master
- Crossing The Rubicon: Dylan’s latter-day classic