Other people’s songs: Little Maggie

By Aaron Galbraith and Tony Attwood

In this series Aaron looks at songs Dylan has sung but which he didn’t write, and Tony (across the Atlantic) adds some thoughts which spring to mind while reading Aaron’s commentary.   Links to previous articles can be found at the end.

Aaron: Little Maggie is a traditional folk song from the southern Appalachians probably from the late 1800s. The song, about a hard-drinking, fun-loving heart breaker, is considered a cousin to Darlin’ Cory. Both use only two chords and fewer than the standard number of notes typical in folk songs, but the tunes are distinctly different. Similarly, while the lyrics to the two songs are not the same, versions of the songs often share this verse:

"Last time a saw Little Maggie [Darlin' Cory]
She was sitting on the banks of the sea
With a forty-four on her hip
And a banjo on her knee".

Grayson and Whitter released the first recording as a Single on December 6, 1929 as “Little Maggie with a Dram Glass in Her Hand.”

Tony: The comment about the two chords is really interesting (to me, if no one else) because these are not just any old chords but a very, very distinctive combination of chords.   The recording above is in G (unless my musical ear has totally been blown, and I am not going all the way downstairs to the piano and guitar to check, so I am hoping I am right) and the chords are G major and D minor.   Now the point is that in the classical sense, these are unrelated chords – you can’t make the notes of the D minor chord out of the notes available from the G major scale.

So it sounds unexpected and slightly odd.   Besides which, most people brought up on western music hear minor chords as sad and major chords as happy, so there is this strange disjunction between the chords.  If we take the opening lines with the chords…

G                        Dm
"Last time a saw Little Maggie
G                       Dm           G   
She was sitting on the banks of the sea

what we hear is jolly happiness in the rhythm, melody and chord, suddenly contrasted at the word “Maggie” with the sadness of the minor.   It gives a feeling that everything that looked bright and cheery has in fact a sad background – adding the feeling that the “last time” was not yesterday but a long time ago.   And that works with the lyrics because “the last time a saw” (which is to say in modern parlance “The last time I saw”) gives a feeling of lost love.   So happy memories and sad memories are completely mirrored by the choice of chords.  It works brilliantly and can be felt whether one knows anything about music or not.

Aaron: Bob probably knew The Stanley Brothers version from 1948

Tony: Here the speed of the song and joy of the banjo sound keep emphasising the inter-connection of the happy and sad.  The result is a great, lively song, which gives us the message that life can be happy and sad, and that’s ok.

I really love this performance.  It reminds me that life is fun and life is crap.  And that’s ok as that is how it is.

Aaron: Bob’s version was included on his 1992 album Good as I Been to You.

Tony:  Bob adds an extra chord, replacing the second chord with a major and replacing the minor chord to the end of the line again with a major.   So staying with the song in G we would get  G  C  (D) as the chords, (although in fact Bob is performing in the key of B).   I think this is achieved with a capo on the second fret and playing it in A, but that’s just a thought in hearing the way the chords move.

It is incidentally a reminder of what a great musician Bob is – something that I find easy to forget when listening to some Never Ending Tour songs in which he just keeps playing two or three notes over and over again.

Aaron: Subsequent versions include Tom Petty & The Heart Breakers

Tony: And here they are using the same chord sequence that Bob used – with of course the extension of the first line by holding the word with the harmony.  The unexpected element beyond that, and what makes this version for me is the electric (I think) piano in the instrumental break.   I wish we had more piano breaks in fact because the pianist seems to get much more out of the song than the other soloists.  But still, great fun.

Aaron: Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters

Tony: That is a very strange album cover and a very inventive version of this song.  How ever did they get to think of this arrangement?   It is one of those interpretations that I would use if I wanted to show to anyone who was inclined to be disparaging of the work of rock musicians, that there is as much inventiveness in this genre of music as there is in anything else in western music.

Aaron, I am as ever, in your debt.  What a fabulous collection.   Really enjoyed it.

Previously in this series…

  1. Other people’s songs. How Dylan covers the work of other composers
  2. Other People’s songs: Bob and others perform “Froggie went a courtin”
  3. Other people’s songs: They killed him
  4. Other people’s songs: Frankie & Albert
  5. Other people’s songs: Tomorrow Night where the music is always everything
  6. Other people’s songs: from Stack a Lee to Stagger Lee and Hugh Laurie
  7. Other people’s songs: Love Henry
  8. Other people’s songs: Rank Stranger To Me
  9. Other people’s songs: Man of Constant Sorrow
  10. Other people’s songs: Satisfied Mind
  11. Other people’s songs: See that my grave is kept clean
  12. Other people’s songs: Precious moments and some extras
  13. Other people’s songs: You go to my head
  14. Other people’s songs: What’ll I do?
  15. Other people’s songs: Copper Kettle
  16. Other people’s songs: Belle Isle
  17. Other people’s songs: Fixing to Die
  18. Other people’s songs: When did you leave heaven?
  19. Other people’s songs: Sally Sue Brown
  20. Other people’s songs: Ninety miles an hour down a dead end street
  21. Other people’s songs: Step it up and Go
  22. Other people’s songs: Canadee-I-O
  23. Other people’s songs: Arthur McBride
  24. Other people’s songs: Little Sadie
  25. Other people’s songs: Blue Moon, and North London Forever
  26. Other people’s songs: Hard times come again no more
  27. Other people’s songs: You’re no good
  28. Other people’s songs: Lone Pilgrim (and more Crooked Still)
  29. Other people’s songs: Blood in my eyes
  30. Other people’s songs: I forgot more than you’ll ever know
  31.  Other people’s songs: Let’s stick (or maybe work) together.
  32. Other people’s songs: Highway 51
  33. Other people’s songs: Jim Jones
  34. Other people’s songs: Let’s stick (or maybe work) together.
  35. Other people’s songs: Jim Jones
  36. Other people’s songs: Highway 51 Blues
  37. Other people’s songs: Freight Train Blues
  38. Other People’s Songs: The Little Drummer Boy
  39. Other People’s Songs: Must be Santa
  40. Other People’s songs: The Christmas Song
  41. Other People’s songs: Corina Corina
  42. Other People’s Songs: Mr Bojangles
  43. Other People’s Songs: It hurts me too
  44. Other people’s songs: Take a message to Mary
  45. Other people’s songs: House of the Rising Sun
  46. Other people’s songs: “Days of 49”
  47. Other people’s songs: In my time of dying
  48. Other people’s songs: Pretty Peggy O
  49. Other people’s songs: Baby Let me Follow You Down
  50. Other people’s songs: Gospel Plow
  51. Other People’s Songs: Melancholy Mood
  52. Other people’s songs: The Boxer and Big Yellow Taxi
  53. Other people’s songs: Early morning rain
  54. Other people’s Songs: Gotta Travel On
  55. Other people’s songs: “Can’t help falling in love”
  56. Other people’s songs: Lily of the West
  57. Other people’s songs: Alberta


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