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Music

Is there a hidden meaning behind Bob Dylan’s ‘Maggie’s Farm’?

Bob Dylan raised himself on a healthy diet composed chiefly of folk music during his rise to prominence in the early 1960s. At the time, Dylan’s peers would describe him as having a mind like a sponge. He attended hundreds of live gigs while buying and borrowing as many records as he could carry. 

All the while, he memorised and emulated the chord structures and lyric patterns of some of his most beloved folk forebears. His particular interest in the anti-fascist troubadour Woody Guthrie drew him to New York at the very start of the 1960s, where he managed to meet and befriend his idol in the final years of his life. Dylan would sit at Guthrie’s bedside, where he was tragically dying from Huntington’s disease, and play some of his songs for him.

By 1965, Dylan had become a global star following the release of four studio albums that boasted some of the most iconic folk hits of the decade, including ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’ and ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’. He was widely accepted as the biggest name in folk music and the “spokesman of a generation,” thanks to his politically relevant lyrics and iconic delivery. 

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However, at the time, Dylan didn’t think of himself as a folk musician, he wanted to in a genre of his own. While folk music paved his way, Dylan was a lover of rock and roll first and foremost. As a teenager, he was infatuated with the likes of Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Jimmy Reed, and by 1965, he seemed ready to heed these earlier influences. 

If he was to out himself as a rock musician and sever his strong ties with the folk world, he would do it with style and maximum effect. In March 1965, Dylan released Bringing It All Back Home. The album marked the pivotal moment in Dylan’s development, with the first side of the record backed by an electric band and side two returning to the familiar acoustic sound. 

On July 20th, 1965, Dylan compounded the folkies’ fear with the release of the electric rock single ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. These releases set the stage for Dylan’s historic performance at the Newport Folk Festival on July 25th, 1965, where he played an electric set consisting of three new tracks: ‘Maggie’s Farm’, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and ‘It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry’. The set was then concluded with a short acoustic encore. Famously, Dylan was booed off the stage by his fans who had attended in hopes to hear an exclusively acoustic set. 

After the performance, some fans theorised that there might be a deeper meaning behind Dylan’s chosen opener, ‘Maggie’s Farm’. At face value, the song tells the story of a farm labourer getting fed up with the harsh working conditions of Maggie’s farm. As musicologists quickly sussed out, the song was likely inspired by the traditional folk song, ‘Penny’s Farm’, first recorded by North Carolina’s Bentley Brothers in 1929. 

Dylan would most likely have known the song from the 1952 Anthology Of American Folk Music (widely renamed the Harry Smith Anthology), a popular collection circling the US folk community with great influence at the time. 

Whether it was a conscious idea or not is uncertain, but some fans believe that the inclusion of ‘Maggie’s Farm’ and ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ in the 1965 Newport set was intended to metaphorically convey Dylan’s feelings toward his folk pigeonhole. 

‘Like a Rolling Stone’ has an obvious link to rock ‘n’ roll with its namesake stemming from Muddy Waters’ 1950 blues classic, ‘Rollin’ Stone’, which had already inspired the name of a certain rock group in the UK by this point. But what about ‘Maggie’s Farm’?

Some have deduced that the farm symbolised the constraints of the folk scene, and during the 1965 performance, Dylan was furtively announcing that he doesn’t want to be a folkie no more!