3. Bob Dylan – Maggie’s Farm (1965)
Published January 2019
While this entry does not zone in on many specific New York locations, this story would not have been possible if Bob Dylan hadn’t made his way to Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. Dylan is undoubtedly the most globally renowned of the scene’s esteemed alumni, having first travelled here as a young man from his home state of Minnesota, via stop offs at the Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in New Jersey to visit his Huntington’s Disease afflicted idol.
Our final stop is the idyllic sailing outpost of Newport, Rhode Island, around 180 miles upcoast from NYC, where Mr Dylan made some waves of his own.
I was assured – although perhaps was not convinced – that I was listening to a forebear to modern day rap*. While unlikely to share the track with my peers on the playground, there was something eminently intriguing about Dylan’s storytelling style – and indeed the story he was telling, as he railed against the racial injustices of the 60s and 70s that had led to the false imprisonment of boxer Rubin Carter. I borrowed my dad’s CD copy of Desire and thus a lifetime of Dylan adulation was sparked.
When it came to selecting the US100, Maggie’s Farm was never the obvious choice for my Dylan track – I’d always placed in it the ‘like not love’ drawer in the filing cabinet of my heart. But that was before I read Elijah Wald’s Dylan Goes Electric! account of the developments that led to Dylan’s seismic performance of the song on the Newport Folk Festival stage in 1965. I’d picked up a copy of Wald’s recently released book in the midst of my 2015/16 US journey that the US100 is geographically based upon, and this text is a significant influence on my fascination with American musical history that underlines this project. What it taught me about Maggie’s Farm specifically was the power of the song’s symbolism: of a generation that rejected the norms of its elders, the evolution of the musical zeitgeist at the time of its release, and one man’s own fierce independence that ran at loggerheads with many of those that adored him.
And, as is so often the case with my US100 selections, a deeper affinity developed from there. The song’s message of rejecting establishment routine, and in particular the last lines of Verse 1 – I got a head full of ideas / That are drivin’ me insane – began to grow in significant symbolism as I internally wrestled my mundane 9-to-5 existence at the time with burgeoning creative ambitions. Having now escaped my own Maggie’s Farm, I cannot help but reflect on Dylan as an inspiration.
* – Today Subterranean Homesick Blues strikes me as a more obvious contender when drawing links between Dylan and rap-like delivery
Dylan would play at Woody Guthrie’s bedside between adventures scrabbling around in New York City’s Greenwich Village, a locality in which he would ultimately have a great impact. Channeling the spirit of Guthrie – a performer who loved to blur the lines of fact and fiction – Dylan would tell his own gloriously fantastical tall tales about his life and travels that captivated his audiences, whether he was claiming to be a Sioux Indian from New Mexico or a student of musical cowboys in Wyoming. Former bandmate and housemate of Guthrie’s, Pete Seeger, became infatuated with this Woodyesque approach and became such a fan that he ultimately persuaded Columbia Records kingmaker John Hammond to sign the young singer in September 1961 – just nine months after Dylan had first departed Minnesota.
Within four years Dylan had released five albums on the label. The fifth, Bringing It All Back Home, was a significant departure from those that came prior. While Bob Dylan (1962), The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), The Times They Are a-Changin’ (1964) and Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964) were largely constituted of original songs, they nonetheless remained in keeping with the acoustic folk tradition. Bringing It All Back Home stuck to this orthodox format only on its second side – its first seven tracks the initial manifestation of Dylan ‘going electric’*.
In this sense Dylan’s performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival is more significant for its iconography than it is as a watershed moment in the evolution of folk rock – on the latter front the dye had already been cast. The Beatles were calling upon folk influences as they recorded Help! earlier that year and, although not yet termed ‘folk rock’, The Animals’ electrified cover of folk standard House of the Rising Sun – itself inspired by Dylan’s own version on his 1962 debut album had risen to the top of the US and UK charts a year prior. In a deliciously neat example of musical circularity, it is alleged that Dylan’s decision to electrify his own folk sound was prompted upon hearing the Animals’ recording.
Maggie’s Farm was recorded in one clean take in January 1965. Mythology has it that four months later Pete Seeger was aggressively yielding an axe in order to stop Dylan playing the song altogether – but how he and the wider Newport crowd actually reacted to the set is shrouded in the confusion of a thousand conflicting claims.
* In his professional career that is – considering he played Little Richard and Elvis Presley numbers at high school, his following in Woody Guthrie’s footsteps might in fact be described as Dylan ‘going acoustic’.
Whether he liked it or not – and most of the evidence suggests he did not – Bob Dylan by 1965 had become a voice of Seeger’s protest generation, crusaders for nuclear disarmament, civil rights, and withdrawal from Vietnam. In a setting such as Newport it was expected that he would deliver such messages of moral virtue in the Guthrieesque acoustic folk style for which he was famed, as per his performances at the festival in 1963 and 1964. Dylan, of course, had other ideas.
The story of the evening however is less Dylan’s performance and more the audience’s reaction to it – a story that suffers from a total lack of consensus as to what that entailed exactly. Any notion that the an entire audience of traditionalist ‘folkies’ were exclusively hostile is an exaggeration to say the least, with the crowd undoubtedly containing Dylan acolytes who probably would have effused over the performance regardless. But the booing was certainly there. One can pontificate until the cow’s come home about folk movement betrayal, purist anathema towards electrical amplification, or leftist infighting but that would overlook one simple factor in the acrimony that surrounded the show: it wasn’t very good. The haphazard manner in which Dylan threw his band together the previous night is a matter of record and, as Elijah Wald outlined to me in his US100 interview, the performance itself – short, messy, extremely distorted, and punctuated by huge periods of silence between songs – was nothing short of contemptuous.
Seeger himself argued that he personally loved Maggie’s Farm but he was angered that its lyrics were being obscured by the horrendous levels of distortion as yielded by the levels the band had decided upon (but tales of a rabid Seeger literally brandishing an axe to cut the wires are fanciful to say the least). There is a great irony in the lyrics being lost in the chaos of Newport, as they seem to capture the moment better than any postmortem could. I try my best to be just like I am, but everybody wants you, to be just like them – whatever their original intention, in this context such a lonely angered declaration of independence appears a refusal to be kowtowed by the expectations placed upon Dylan by the surrounding establishment. Perhaps Dylan even took a perverse pleasure in turning the tables of the protest song tradition in the least traditionally way possible, and aiming it squarely back at those who come to expect such songs from him.
On a side note I personally I like to spare a thought for the poor Moving Star Hall Singers who were next on the bill – the musical equivalent of following on from the Tasmanian Devil such was the destruction and confusion all around.
After Newport, booing Dylan became a bit of a musical bloodsport for those who had the time and money to spend on concerts they held in contempt. Martin Scorcese’s No Direction Home chronicles the harsh reaction some dished out to ‘Bob Dylan and the Band’ (previously The Hawks) in UK arenas, including the ignominy of a middle aged Mancunian barking ‘Judas’ in Bob’s direction. Again, like Newport, one mustn’t make the error of attributing a volatile reaction to the crowd as a whole – most testimony from those present at these concerts report acrimonious splits in the audience between folk traditionalists and modernist rock enthusiasts, the latter attempting to drown out the former’s boos with cheers.
Now a Nobel laureate with 37 studio albums and 3000 live shows under his belt*, it’s safe to say that Dylan got over the hurt he caused back during this tumultuous time. Indeed the controversy of the ‘65 period merely served to enshrine his legend further, and the subsequent work he’d come to record with backing bands – albums such as Highway 61 Revisited (1965), Blonde on Blonde (1966), Nashville Skyline (1969), Blood On The Tracks (1975), and Desire (1976) – is today as revered, if not more so, than his early folk recordings. President Obama, who has described Maggie’s Farm political rhetoric as ‘speaking to him’, bestowed Dylan with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, and was one of the first to tweet his congratulations in 2016 as the great man was (slightly controversially) announced as the 2016 Nobel Prize winner for Literature. Away from music you might find Dylan at his Black Buffalo Ironworks – his metalwork designs provided the basis for the artwork of the Heaven’s Door whisky range that Dylan lent his name to last year.
Back in ‘65 Bringing It All Back Home’s electric A side – Maggie’s Farm, Subterranean Homesick Blues et al – helped to bridge the folk-rock divide, but it was to be a track from the acoustic half of the album that would have the biggest impact of all on this particular front, albeit not through Dylan’s recording. The Byrds’ electrified adaptation of Mr Tambourine Man was released only a month after its original recording and heralded the dawn of mainstream folk rock. It became the hybrid genre’s defining smash hit, topping the charts just as Dylan was sending an electric bolt through his Newport audience. The rapidly evolving narrative of 1965 continued apace as Like A Rolling Stone was released only five days after Newport, completing Dylan’s transition from folk singer-songwriter to fully fledged rock star.
Among those influenced by such innovations were US100 New York City neighbours Simon & Garfunkel, the electric treatment of Sounds of Silence kick starting their career, and former folkies the Mamas & the Papas – California Dreamin’ was released at the end of this particularly manic musical calendar year.
* – Although no number 1 records – also in this club are Bruce Springsteen, Nirvana, and Led Zeppelin
In his later years Bob Dylan’s profile was used to promote products as diverse as Cadillac cars and Pepsi. Perhaps the most surreal example was his appearance alongside Brazilian model Adriana Lima in a 2004 Victoria’s Secret lingerie advert.
US100 interview: Elijah Wald – The man who wrote the book on Dylan
Bob Dylan’s World – Slate, May 2013
Elijah Wald – Dylan Goes Electric! Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night That Split the Sixties (2015)