Bob Dylan takes a moment of pause in his memoir to pour some praise on one particular cover of his, of which there are literally thousands to choose from, and that cover is not by The Specials. However, it is about Johnny Rivers and his version of ‘Positively 4th Street’ and the attributing quote sets up the speculation to follow quite nicely.
“Of all the versions of my recorded songs,” Dylan begins, “The Johnny Rivers one was my favourite. It was obvious that we were from the same side of town, had been read the same citations, came from the same musical family and were cut from the same cloth.”
He then goes on to say that he actually liked his version better, writing, “Most of the cover versions of my songs seemed to take them out into left field somewhere, but Rivers’s version had the mandate down – the attitude, the melodic sense to complete and surpass even the feeling that I had put into it.”
Thus, with that in mind, it goes without saying what he would’ve made of a ska interpretation of his power subverting classic ‘Maggie’s Farm’. While Dylan himself has stayed true to nobody by the whim of his muse and ventured into many different stylings, he has also maintained that the songs themselves have a certain sort of dominative control over themselves.
That being said, The Specials do somehow capture something of the plantation essence behind the song with the pounding bongo’s that run throughout the song. And not one to shy away from politics, he would have been more than pleased to see his work brandished against Margaret Thatcher’s totalitarian ways. The jangling rhythm guitars that lend it somewhat of tropical sanguine vibe, on the other hand, is another matter.
The two-tone version of the folk classic which first appeared on Bob Dylan’s first electric album Bringing It All Back Home was first recorded in 1980 and it became somewhat of a hit for The Specials helping to establish the growing movement.
Two-Tone not being much of a genre renowned for its subtlety, The Specials even cut the original limited ’45 single with a silhouette of Thatcher as the artwork. Sadly it wasn’t quite enough to oust her from power, but it still stands up as one of the more covers of Dylan out there.
The original equally has an interesting past, for starters, it was one of the three electric songs that he played at the iconic/infamous Newport Folk Festival. It was a reinvention of an earlier song, ‘Hard Times in the Country’ which was adapted from the 1920s musical Penny’s Farm.