Keys To The Rain: The Definitive Bob Dylan Encyclopedia (continued)

"Maggie's Farm"

"Maggie's Farm" (Bob Dylan)

• Bob Dylan, single (1965); Bringing It All Back Home (1965); Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, Volume II/'65 (1971); Hard Rain (1976); Bob Dylan at Budokan (1979); Real Live (1984)
• Solomon Burke, single (1965); Cry to Me (1984)
• The Defiants, single (1966)
• Ray Brown & Whispers, Hits & Brass (1967)
• Richie Havens, Somethin' Else (1968); Classics (1995)
• Sam Lay, Sam Lay in Bluesland (1968)
• Flatt & Scruggs, Final Fling (1970)
• Nannie Porres, I Thought About You (1971)
• Booker T. Jones, Home Grown (1972)
• Victor Scott, I Want You Beside Me (1973)
• The Blues Band, Ready (1980)
• The Specials, The Singles Collection/'75 (1991)
• Hot Tuna, Live at Sweetwater (1992)
• Barbara Dickson, Don't Think Twice, It's Alright (1992)
• The Checkered Past, Two Tone Compilation: Checkered Past (1993)
• Tim O'Brien, Red on Blonde (1996)
• The Walkabouts, Death Valley Days (1996)
• Alternative Biography, Alternative Biography (1997)
• David Grisman/John Hartford/Mike Seeger, Retrograss (2000)
• Rage Against the Machine, Renegades (2000)
• The Grateful Dead, Postcards of the Hanging: Grateful Dead Perform the Songs of Bob Dylan (2002)
• Various Artists (performed by Solomon Burke), Blues & Soul Power (2003)

When Bob Dylan shocked the pop-culture universe by plugging in his black Fender Strat at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, he began his cosmos-altering set with "Maggie's Farm." As a result of that single event, "Maggie's Farm" might be considered his most personal protest song, one to which he has returned and reinvented many times. The song even works as folk-rock stand-up—Dylan disses Maggie and everybody in her family with a funny punchline in every woebegotten verse.

"Maggie's Farm" is seen, at least partly, as a reworking of "Penny's Farm," an old country song. "Haven't old George Penny got a flatterin' mouth?/Move you to the country in a little log house/Got no windows but the cracks in the wall," goes "Penny's Farm"; "I ain't gonna work for Maggie's pa no more/ ... /His bedroom window/It is made out of bricks," sings Dylan.

Additionally, others have linked "Tanner's Farm," a similar 1934 song recorded by Gid Tanner and Riley Puckett, to this constellation of works from which Dylan drew in composing "Maggie's Farm." It has also been suggested that Silas Magee, the owner of the Greenwood, Mississippi, farm that hosted a July 6, 1963, civil rights rally at which Dylan appeared and was seen briefly in Don't Look Back, provided some sort of inspiration, though "Maggie's Farm" was composed a year and a half later. Perhaps Dylan was responding in song to the many hoops he was being pressured to jump though as the "voice" of the folk/protest movement.

Yet this is a protest song of the highest order, as Dylan, in a series of cartoonish vignettes and with a bitingly sardonic delivery as heard on Bringing It All Back Home, manages to have his babka and eat it too with a critique of both capitalism and communism, thus avoiding any charges of red-baiting or red-diapering. In "Maggie's Farm" any system (and those that run them) that reduces its laborers to the alienated, time-clock-punching, assembly-line droids must be condemned.

Dylan did not see himself as exempt from the threat of such toil. In 1965 he wasn't going to continue being simply a gifted folkie playing for a select, sanctimoniously purist circle. He was growing as an artist, pushing boundaries. He wasn't going to work on Maggie's farm: he would follow his own muse, even -— perhaps especially -- if it meant confounding the expectations of his audience, his management, or the corporate interests behind him. "Got a head full of ideas/that are drivin' me insane," he sings.

In "Maggie's Farm," as in the darkly humorous "Subterranean Homesick Blues" from the same transitional Bringing It All Back Home album, Dylan showed us that a protest song could dole out harsh social critique and be lighthearted at the same time. Here he sneers at any kind of meaningless labor ("It's a shame the way she makes me scrub the floor") and sounds a trumpet against conformity ("everybody wants you/to be just like them)." He gets us to snicker at the narrator's plight, but the message couldn't be clearer: we all work on somebody's farm.

"Maggie's Farm" has never left Dylan's set lists throughout the twists and right angles of his career. In 1965, it was hard-driving—an energetic, wry statement of self. It was similar, but with a harder edge, on both the 1974 reunion tour with the Band and the barnstorming Rolling Thunder Revue tour of 1976. Then, in 1978, when Dylan transformed his road show into a glitzfest complete with Vegas-influenced arrangements and an Elvis Presley–inspired big band behind him, "Maggie's Farm" was still front and center, confounding even the most die-hard Dylan fans as a virtually tuneless minor-key rant. It was that same year that "Maggie's Farm" also enjoyed a renewed popularity among Great Britain's leftists as a protest against Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government. In 1984 the song was again recast as the smirking rock boogie it has remained through the 1990s and early '00s. In 2003, Dylan even began using it as a show opener. From the front lines of the class wars to the rear guard of the pop cultural zeitgeist, Bert Parks (who made a name for himself during the 1970s as host of the Miss America Pageant) performed a mind-bendingly bizarre version of "Maggie's Farm" in The Freshman, the 1990 black comedy mobster flick starring Matthew Broderick as a young film student and Marlon Brando doing a perfect send-up of his Don Corleone Godfather character.

MORE "Keys To The Rain":
"Blowin' in the Wind"
"Like a Rolling Stone"
"Mr. Tambourine Man"