'Maggie's Farm': Bob Dylan Shocks the Folk Music World
"Maggie's Farm," written by Bob Dylan, was released on one of Dylan’s greatest albums Bringing It All Back Home in 1965.
"Maggie's Farm" was Dylan’s declaration of independence from the folk movement and his turn to electric rock. The first public performance featured prominent lead electric guitar Mike Bloomfield, that caused the most controversy at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Dylan, many folk music lovers, thought was the next Woody Guthrie. But Dylan rejected the mantle. He was famously booed at the festival.
Al Kooper, Dylan's organist at the concert, claims, ”The reason they booed is because he only played for 15 minutes and everybody else played for 45 minutes to an hour, and he was the headliner of the festival. ...The fact that he was playing electric...I don't know. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band (who had played earlier) had played electric and the crowd didn't seem too incensed.”
However, the style of the music features heavily in several accounts such as that of Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman: "Backstage, famed folklorist Alan Lomax was bellowing that this was a folk festival, you just didn't have amplified instruments."
The "Maggie's Farm" performance from Newport is featured in the excellent Martin Scorsese documentary No Direction Home (2005) and released on its accompanying album, The Bootleg Series Vol. 7: No Direction Home: The Soundtrack.
"Maggie's Farm" recasts Dylan as the pawn and the folk music scene as the oppressor. The middle stanzas ridicule various types in the folk scene, the promoter who tries to control your art (fining you when you slam the door), the paranoid militant (whose window is bricked over), and the condescending activist who is more uptight than she claims ("She's 68 but she says she's 54"). The first and last stanzas detail how Dylan feels strait-jacketed by the expectations of the folk scene ("It's a shame the way she makes me scrub the floor" and "they say sing while you slave"), needing room to express his "head full of ideas," and complains that, even though he tries his best to be just like he is, "everybody wants you to be just like them."
The song, essentially a protest song against protest folk, represents Dylan's transition from a folk singer who sought authenticity in traditional song-forms and activist politics to an innovative stylist whose self-exploration made him a cultural muse for a generation. (See "Like a Rolling Stone" and influence on The Beatles, etc.)
It can also (ironically) be seen as itself a deeply political protest song. We are told, for example, that the "National Guard" stands around the farm door, and that Maggie's mother talks of "Man and God and Law." The "farm" that Dylan sings of can in this case easily represent racism, state oppression and capitalist exploitation.
In fact this theme of capitalist exploitation came to be seen by some as the major theme of the song. In this interpretation, Maggie's Farm is the military industrial complex, and Dylan is singing for the youth of his time, urging them to reject society.
In Todd Haynes' Dylan biopic I'm Not There, the song debuts at the Newport Folk Festival, with Dylan and his band firing machine guns at the crowd. At the conclusion of the performance, Haynes' Dylan declares to a cartoonish folk-protest audience: "I'm sorry for everything I've done, and I hope to remedy it soon."
The songs on the album include several of Dylan’s best:
- "Subterranean Homesick Blues"
- "She Belongs to Me"
- "Maggie's Farm"
- "Love Minus Zero/No Limit"
- "Outlaw Blues"
- "On the Road Again"
- "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream"
- "Mr. Tambourine Man"
- "Gates of Eden"
- "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)"
- "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue"
Bringing It All Back Home was the fifth studio album by Dylan. The album is divided into an electric and an acoustic side. On side one of the original LP, Dylan is backed by an electric rock and roll band—a move that further alienated him from some of his former peers in the folk song community. Likewise, on the acoustic second side of the album, he distanced himself from the protest songs with which he had become closely identified (such as "Blowin' in the Wind" and "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall"), as his lyrics continued their trend towards the abstract and personal.
Dylan spent much of the summer of 1964 in Woodstock, a small town in upstate New York. Dylan was already familiar with the area, but his visits were becoming longer and more frequent. Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman, also had a place in Woodstock, and when Joan Baez went to see Dylan that August, they stayed at Grossman's house.
Baez recalls that "most of the month or so we were there, Bob stood at the typewriter in the corner of his room, drinking red wine and smoking and tapping away relentlessly for hours. And in the dead of night, he would wake up, grunt, grab a cigarette, and stumble over to the typewriter again." Dylan already had one song ready for his next album: "Mr. Tambourine Man" was written in February 1964 but omitted from Another Side of Bob Dylan. Another song, "Gates of Eden," was also written earlier that year, appearing in the original manuscripts to Another Side of Bob Dylan; a few lyrical changes were eventually made, but it's unclear if these were made that August in Woodstock. At least two songs were written that month: "If You Gotta Go, Go Now" and "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)."
During this time, Dylan's writing became increasingly surreal. Even his prose grew more stylistic, often resembling stream-of-consciousness writing with published letters dating from 1964 becoming increasingly intense and dreamlike as the year wore on.
The session began with "Maggie's Farm": only one take was recorded, and it was the only one they'd ever need. From there, Dylan successfully recorded master takes of "On The Road Again," "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)," "Gates of Eden," "Mr. Tambourine Man," and "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," all of which were set aside for the album. A master take of "If You Gotta Go, Go Now" was also selected, but it would not be included on the album; instead, it was issued as a single-only release in Europe, but not in the U.S. or the UK.
One of Dylan's most celebrated albums, Bringing It All Back Home was soon hailed as one of the greatest albums in rock history. In 1979 Rolling Stone Record Guide, critic Dave Marsh wrote a glowing appraisal: "By fusing the Chuck Berry beat of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles with the leftist, folk tradition of the folk revival, Dylan really had brought it back home, creating a new kind of rock & roll...that made every type of artistic tradition available to rock." Clinton Heylin later wrote that Bringing It All Back Home was possibly "the most influential album of its era. Almost everything to come in contemporary popular song can be found therein." In 2003, the album was ranked number 31 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
Before the year was over, Dylan would record and release another album, Highway 61 Revisited, which would take his new lyrical and musical direction even further.
Visit your local library for more resources about Bob Dylan.
Bringing It All Back Home CD
Bob Dylan, (1965).
No Direction Home
Martin Scorsese, (2005).
The Bootleg Series Vol. 7: No Direction Home: The Soundtrack
Bob Dylan, (2005).
I'm Not There
Bob Dylan, (2004).
Bob Dylan, (2004).
Bob Dylan, the essential interviews
Jonathan Cott, (2006).
Rolling Stone Record Guide
Dave Marsh and John Swenson, (1979).
Joan Baez and Bob Dylan at Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C., 08/28/1963
Photo by Rowland Scherman.The negatives are in the custody of the National Archives. The image was made for US Information Agency.