Bob Dylan’s iconic masterpiece is the focus of today’s Tuesday Tune-Up. I’ve had it stuck in my head the last few weeks while I’ve worked as a janitor, and I have some thoughts.
Examination of a Song
I’m a musician. I’m even a somewhat literate musician (I know how to read music, but I’m dogshit at it. Basically I’d be like a first grader trying to sound out words in Moby Dick.) I’m not, however, a music scholar. I’m a scholar of American Literature.
Therefore, this analysis may not fit any type of actual guidelines for analyzing a song within the musical scholars society. Instead, I’ll approach this the way I would approach analyzing a poem. We’ll consider sound, author’s voice, tone, subject matter, and the sociopolitical impact of the song.
I’d also like to point out that I’ve done minimal outside research for this piece.
First, the Sound
Here’s where my inadequacies as a music scholar may show through. “Maggie’s Farm” is a blues song, but it doesn’t follow the standard 12-bar blues chord progression.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, a little explanation is in order. Your typical blues song – say 90% of any blues songs you’d hear on the radio (if anyone listens to the radio anymore) – follows what is referred to as a 12-bar blues progression.
The song starts with the first note/chord of whatever scale corresponds with the key of the song (the root), moves to the fourth note/chord after four bars, then back to the root after two bars. Two measures later, it’s time for the “turnaround,” which is one bar of the fifth note/chord, one of the fourth, one of the first, then one more of the fifth. At that point, the progression starts over, 12-bars in total having been played. So for our purposes, we’ll use the key of C. A typical blues song in C would play a C chord for four bars, an F chord for two bars, a C for two more bars, then a G for one, an F for one, a C for one, then back to the G for the last one before the progression starts again. (See songs like “Red House,” “The House is Rockin'” etc.)
A different kind of blues:
One of the things that makes “Maggie’s Farm” so great is that it’s a blues song, but it holds and vamps on that root note/chord for 8 of the twelve bars, then does an alternate turnaround with one measure of the fifth, one measure of the fourth, then two measures of the root.
This means monotony. You expect those changes from the 12-bar progression the first time you hear the song. It comes in like any blues boogie you’d ever heard, but when it’s time to change chords to the fourth, the band just stays on that root note. Also, Dylan’s vocals add to that expectation, because the first two lines of every verse are a refrain of the same line – just like so many 12-bar blues songs. Example:
There’s a red house over yonder, and that’s where my baby stays / There’s a red house over yonder, and that’s where my baby stays / I ain’t been home to see my baby / In 99 and one a half days.“Red House” – Jimi Hendrix
There are also no sections in the song arrangement for instrumental breaks or solos. That’s a hallmark of the blues. When you can’t express what’s causing you pain with words, you do it with your guitar, or piano, or harmonica. There are some tasty little licks thrown into the song between verses, but they never become fully actualized solo sections.
So right off the bat we’ve got a soundscape for a canvas that bleeds monotony. This contributes to the overall theme of the song, which we’ll get to momentarily. Another thing that the monotony of the chord structure accomplishes is that it adds to the sense of complaint that the song conveys. It’s like when you’re getting chewed out by someone and you just want to walk away but they just keep you there, blocking your way out and forcing you to listen.
The refusal of the band to change chords before the turnaround, especially after the refrained first line, is another way of creating tension and making sure that the listener hears what happens next.
So Let’s Talk about the Lyrics, Then…
We’ll go verse by verse, and I’ll give you my version of the allegory. Like I said above, I did a little research for this, but couldn’t find anything compelling regarding the lyrics that relate to my thesis. The only other interesting theory about interpretation of the lyrics was probably true – that the song was a way for Dylan to say goodbye to the folk community and embrace the more challenging work of writing his own, more complex songs. You can read more about that theory here.
I also did a rudimentary search of academic databases (one of the perks of being a college professor), and found nothing relating to “Maggie’s Farm,” which kind of shocked me.
I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more / No, I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more / Well I wake up in the morning, fold my hands, and pray for rain / I got a head full of ideas that are driving me insane / It’s a shame the way she makes me scrub the floor / I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.Verse 1
The speaker has made a decision that he’s (I’ll use the masculine pronoun here, since Dylan is male) through doing the type of labor he’s been doing. He’s obviously frustrated by the nature of the work – evident in lines three and five, but line four really resonates with me.
Every time I’ve had to do some thankless underling job in the corporate world, I’ve been plagued by a bitter train of thought that runs through my mind the entire work day. When I was an insurance agent, I would wake up every morning and dread going to work. Every slight against me by my corporate masters at that point festered in my mind, until finally everything came to a head and I was no longer an insurance agent. That “head full of ideas that are driving me insane” is a real bitch.
Who’s Maggie, Anyway?
We’re also introduced to the idea that there’s a person named Maggie, who runs this whole charade. We get very little information about the person of Maggie in the rest of the lyrics, but the fact that every time her name is mentioned it’s in the possessive form, “Maggie’s.” As we’ll see Maggie even owns her family members.
Because of this, I interpret “Maggie” as a symbol for “the system,” or whatever you want to call it. I personally prefer to think of her as “The Man,” but that’s a generational thing, I guess.
I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s brother no more / No, I ain’t gonna work Maggie’s brother no more / Well he hands you a nickel, and he hands you a dime / And he asks with a grin if you’re having a good time / Then he fines you every time you slam the door / I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s brother no more.Verse 2
Having established that Maggie is less a person and more the personification of the system, it’s time to meet our first actual allegorical character, Maggie’s brother.
Maggie’s brother gives you the minimum compensation for your work, expects you to be happy with it, then fines you when you’re not.
To expand on this, let’s talk about every retail or service-related job I’ve ever had. They all want you to be part of the team. They want you to buy into their culture and make their corporate identity an integral part of your identity – which one should never let anyone do to them as far as I’m concerned. Then they regulate every little aspect of your life. Your boss – the one who wants this department/company/store to “be a family” – calls you in and reprimands you for taking too many bathroom breaks. Are you fucking kidding me? Why do I need to explain that this is idiotic?
Anyway, that’s how I see Maggie’s brother – the mid-level corporate manager who feels the need to micromanage everything and constantly exert his authority over those he manages.
I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s pa no more/ No, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s pa no more / Well he puts his cigar out in your face, just for kicks / His bedroom window, it is made out of bricks / the National Guard stands around his door / I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s pa no moreVerse 3
Maggie’s pa is the governmental authority, or the muscle of the organization – however you want to see it. At the time Dylan wrote this, the U.S. was abusing military and police forces left and right in civil rights incidents. That’s where the “put’s his cigar out in your face just for kicks,” line connects. Think of police with German shepherds and fire hoses attacking non-violent protesters.
His bedroom window being made out of bricks is a way of saying that the government had become blind to the plight of its people, but it’s also a way of attacking a lack of transparency. If Maggie’s pa can’t see out his window, we can’t see into his window, either.
Finally, the National Guard is mentioned, clearly a reference to Governor George Wallace’s use of National Guard troops to try and stop black students from entering the theretofore all-white University of Alabama in 1963.
In each case, Maggie’s pa is the muscle. He’s the enforcer. He’s the one that keeps everybody in line when the workers get “too riled up” to borrow a phrase from Harper Lee.
I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s ma no more / No, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s ma no more. Well she talks to all the servants about man and God and law / Everybody says she’s the brains behind Pa / She’s sixty eight, but she says she’s fifty four / I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s ma no more.Verse 4
Maggie’s ma is the other side of the governmental authority. The diplomatic side. The side that wants us all to believe in the American Dream, talking to all of us “servants about man and God and law.” Her being the “brains behind pa” also supports this idea – the executive branch being the public face of all of Maggie’s pa’s dirty work.
Her being sixty eight but saying she’s fifty four is another example of the mistrust of the government that was brewing in the mid-sixties. Before that point people generally believed what public officials told them. By the time Kennedy was assassinated, public faith in the U.S. government was starting to wain.
I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more / No, I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more / Well I try and try to be just like I am / but everybody wants me to be just like them / They say sing while you slave, but I just get bored / I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no moreVerse 5
This is a great call back to the first verse, and the ideas set up in the second verse. We go back to focusing on Maggie – the system – and then the speaker gets to the heart of the matter – a square peg trying to fit into a round hole.
The speaker knows that he is more than the work he’s doing on this farm. He has more to offer the world than sweeping floors, but he’s trapped there, or so it seems. Maggie and all her family member’s efforts to try and get him to conform have failed, because he knows he’s more than a slave/tenant farmer/indentured servant, and he knows that the stories they feed him are bullshit, as is the situation he’s in.
“Maggie’s Farm” is a Dylan masterpiece because he uses both an alteration of the typical blues structure along with poignant and (unfortunately) timeless lyrical content that is full of allegory and symbolism.
One thing that I would like to point out, is that this song wouldn’t work as well if it were released today, and that’s because Bob Dylan isn’t black. What I mean is, the allegorical symbol of a farm connotes all sorts of images related to slavery. Because of that, it’s something of an example of cultural appropriation – a phenomenon where a someone from a privileged culture kind of “steals” aspects of another culture. Other examples might include a white person with no Asian heritage tattooing Chinese symbols on their bodies.
The most egregious example I can think of comes from my home town of Spokane, WA, where just a few years back we made national headlines because the head of our chapter of the NAACP, a woman named Rachel Dolezal, was exposed for actually being a white woman. She had altered her appearance to look slightly black, and her defense was that she “identified as a black woman.” There’s so much wrong with that story that I’m not going to get into it here, but anyway, that’s cultural appropriation.
I play this song at shows all the time, because I really do relate to the lyrics, but I worry about the cultural appropriation aspect of it. On the other hand, I wear a sugar-skull T-shirt from time to time, along with sugar-skull cufflinks. I also have two tattoos that are done in native art styles. One is a Hawaiian picture of a sea-turtle, and the other is a Salish depiction of an orca on my chest. I’m neither Hawaiian, Quinault, Makaw, or any other ethnicity tied to the indigenous inhabitants of North America or the Pacific Islands, but I felt compelled to put their art on my body forever.
I’m still going to play the song, because it is brilliant, and it’s become something of an anthem for me over the years.
Ps. In Other News
Don’t forget to support the Buffalo Jones fundraising campaign for our new album – you can read about all the details and find out how you can help and earn some amazing perks here.
Also in music news, my single “Everyday Love” dropped on Friday. Please visit this link and add it to your favorite love-song playlist today!
Finally, I have a solo show on Friday night at Forza Coffe Company on the South Hill in Spokane. See the details here.