Thursday, October 30, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #50: Maggie's Farm

As we all know, one of Dylan's greatest skills as a songwriter was his ability to be universal; he captured the frustrations, dreams, and aspirations so many of us have in his lyrics, even when he's supposedly being specific. Case in point - "Maggie's Farm", which has attained everlasting fame by virtue of "Maggie's farm" becoming synonymous with The Man or Big Brother or whatever else you'd call a brutal, all-powerful authority that works to make your life worse. Now, consider these two explanations of the song:

1. "You know what 'Maggie's Farm' is about? It's about Dylan's break from the protest movement. I mean, think about it, dude! He's obviously singing about himself when he says 'I try my best to be what I am/but everybody wants me to be just like them/they say sing while you slave, I just get bored'", right? He totally means himself when he says he's got a head full of ideas driving him insane, right? He's obviously talking about people trying to hold back his art when he says they fine you every time you slam the door, right? And that part where Maggie's ma's talking about man and God and law and shit? That's totally, like, about issues and stuff! Oh, dude, the song is TOTALLY about Dylan giving the finger to all those folkie dorks, man!"

2. "You know what 'Maggie's Farm' is about? It's about how shitty life can be when you're being held down and oppressed. I mean, I know exactly what he's talking about! I work for a shitty ass low-level technology firm, I sit in a cubicle 40 hours a week, stare at my novelty calendars and clipped-out comic strips, try to avoid working as much as I can until 5 PM, and basically hate every single bit of my existence. And my bosses are total pains in the ass! Every day it's meetings this and projects that and blah blah blah until I want to jam a screwdriver into my neck! And Lord knows I don't want to do this for a living; I'm just 2 drafts away from getting my screenplay just right, and when it's finally done, I'm bidding this hell hole farewell! I know EXACTLY what Dylan means when he's singing about cigars in his face and scrubbing the floor and shit! Oh, dude, the song is TOTALLY about breaking away from shitty modern life, man!"

You see where I'm going with that, I'm sure. There's a reason why "Maggie's farm" has entered our vernacular the way it has - the song is so powerfully about sticking it to The Man and being a rebel in a straitjacketing society that anybody can ascribe their own particular plight to the narrator of the song. What's remarkable, too, is that Dylan could very well have had his own travails in mind when he wrote the song; maybe some of that bitterness hadn't quite worn away yet, or he had a few couplets left over from when he wrote "My Back Pages" or something that he wanted to sand and varnish into a brand new song. At any rate, he did write the song and record it, and in the coming years the American public had a few Maggie's farms of their own to feel oppressed and held down by - the government dragging kids into Vietnam, or busting African-American heads, or telling kids that pot is a tool of Satan, and so on and so on. It's necessary to remember that the 60s was a decade of pushing moral boundaries only because those moral boundaries existed and were so strong, well-defined, and constricting. Dylan, unwittingly (or, if you think he's that much of a genius, wittingly), managed to predict the zeitgeist that would spring up in the coming years, and he gave the world an anthem that summed up the discontent bubbling all across the nation.

And yes, that discontent's still with us today, partially because the changing times dictated newer, shiner, evil-er Maggie's farms to stick it to us, partially because the zeitgeist of the 1960s caused rifts deeper than the Marianas Trench, partially because sometimes the more things change, etc. And we still have "Maggie's Farm" to sum up our discontent, telling us that yeah, shit sucks, those guys really are assholes, and I wouldn't want to be part of their club anyway. That goes for everyone, you know - it isn't just the liberals in our society that feel disaffected, and Dylan's songs don't just appeal to those we consider the angels amongst us (I took some stick for suggesting the Weathermen might have been inspired by "When The Ship Comes In", as though only the good guys draw inspiration from these kinds of songs). There is an entire nation out there, full of people that feel disenfranchised, that feel like the country they know and love is being yanked out from underneath their feet, and can hear a song like "Maggie's Farm" and see the very people that are crushing their livelihoods and walking off with America. It's been that way for a long time now, and the odds of that changing are quite slim indeed. In effect, everybody works, in one way or another, on Maggie's farm, and everybody hates scrubbing the floor or singing while they slave. Dylan may have thought about himself when he wrote the song, but, ironically, in the end he returned to the tenets of the folk movement: he wrote a song that thought about all of us.

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Anonymous said...

Possibly your best work yet, Tony. Keep it up!

Anonymous said...

Maggie's Farm has the distinction of being the favorite song of Obama, Jimmy Carter, and Hunter S. Thompson.

NBooth said...

Great writeup. I especially like the point about specificity leading into a more universal meaning.

I'm really enjoying this series; keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

yeah, all so true we're all livin' on Maggie's farm. How 'bout the line about getting nickel and dimed? Bust yer ass every day while your idiot execs pore over computer printouts just trying to find an error in your work because they have nothing better to do.

This is why I love Dylan's work so much, because he is able to put into words what I feel and I mostly agree with him about everything.

And I like the resignation in this song. He's made up his mind, "I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more."

Oh I might go to work, do my job, but I ain't lettin' 'em put out their cigar in my face. I'm not going to "Sing while I slave," or in modern terms, have a "positive attitude."

Forget it. They just want me to be just like them, but I'm trying my best to be jes who I am, and they can kiss my butt. Love it.

Unknown said...

In a 1969 Rolling Stone interview, “Maggie’s Farm” was the first of eight songs Dylan named when asked which ones he thought were particularly good. In 2006, he opened 60 of his 99 concerts with it, and has performed it more than 1000 times in concert, almost always as the opening song. I wonder why Bob likes it so much.

Literally, the song is about the poor treatment workers receive in our capitalistic system and how power corrupts. Those with power treat workers like slaves, demeaning them and even harming them physically. Those without power are bored and alienated by a system that doesn’t use or value their talents or their humanity. The storyteller “ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.” He’s a rebel who is fed up and unwilling to conform to society’s expectations any more. As such, it is a good opening song to establish a context for themes Dylan addresses in many of his songs.

Historically, the song plays an important role in Dylan’s musical history. Released in 1965 on Bringing It All Back Home – his first album to include “electric music” – and first performed at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, where Dylan shocked the folk world by “going electric,” it marks a milestone in his evolution as an artist.

Metaphorically, many believe that the song was a message to the folk world that he was bored and tired of being expected to fit into the narrow definition of folk music. He had a different vision that did not conform to their expectations that he remain the “King of Folk.” He was rebelling against them, returning to his blues and rock roots, and pursuing new forms of expression that more fully used his talents. One might also argue that the message, over time, reminds his audiences that he will continue to violate expectations and evolve as an artist. He will not be kept in a box.

My favorite lines of the song are “Well, I try my best – To be just like I am – But everybody wants you – To be just like them.” What I love most about Dylan is his quest for authenticity, something all of us want for ourselves and desire in others. Dylan, more than anyone I know has tried to remain true to himself no matter what the reaction is. I can’t help but think about the fans’ rejection of his “electric” music in 1965-66 or his gospel music in 1979-81, as the most dramatic tests of his right to stay true to what he believed in.

Anonymous said...

Bob Dylan was surely smart enough to know that he himself was a rich songwriter who owed everything he had to the dreaded capitalist society. His grandparents had come to America to escape oppression and poverty in Eastern Europe & they had managed to build a new life for themselves and their children. The songwriter & singer "Bob Dylan" was a product of America's open & very capitalist society (a society that even nurtured its critics and let them become rich and famous). Bob Dylan's main audience - those who made him rich - weren't the poor & oppressed, it were mostly middle class college kids, the most affluent generation in American history (whose parents had struggled through the depression & had fought WWII, they had met real hardships!).

It's a little absurd, isn't it? A rich artist singing "I ain't gonna work on Maggie's Farm no more" and wealthy & well-off kids identifying with that line? Oh yes, everybody can feel oppressed occasionally!

NBooth said...

Well, that's the thing about the system, isn't it? It hurts everyone, privileged or not; the problem is that the privileged don't always see or feel or understand that they are as much victims as the poor and oppressed. But they [or, since I am myself a college student, perhaps I should say "we"] can, in moments of rare lucidity, recognize that this very system of privilege kills the soul and dehumanizes everyone involved, high and low, to an alarming extent. So it's far from absurd--it's part of the human condition.

On another note, for some reason "Maggie's Farm" has been connecting itself to "Someday Baby" in my head--they do seem to share common themes.

Anonymous said...

I feel like the farm just may have stood for more than wage labor.

I think one of the cleverest lines is "she's 68 but she says she's 54" -- that's such a great couple of ages and the perfect discrepancy between them to speak to pointless vanity. The line he's usually sung ever since, "68 but says she's 24," is a lot less subtle, but the absurdity of it is funny too.

Sutton Hoo said...

The 1965 Newport Festival performance of Maggie's Farm is now available on iTunes. Here's a link to the US site:

Anonymous said...

I'm a young music teacher working my very first year in an extremely difficult situation. There are many mornings when I turn this song on as I pull into work and sing at the top of my lungs... "I try my best to be just like I am, but everybody wants you to be just like them. They say sing while you slave and I just get bored!!" That line has incredible meaning to me as do countless others in the Dylan canon. Amazing blog keep it up

Music of Bob Dylan said...

Hello Tony, Join us inside Bob Dylan's Music Box's-Farm and listen to every version of every song,