Sunday, August 8, 2010

August 8: Bob Dylan, "Maggie's Farm"

Artist: Bob Dylan
Song: "Maggie's Farm"
Album: Bringing It All Back Home
Year: 1965

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There are a handful of reasons why an artist earns the title of "icon," and there are a scarce few who are so indispensable and have shaped music history so much, that the term is almost an understatement.  For this elite group of performers, there are truly no fitting words to capture their importance to the development and progression of music, and in most cases, it is their actual name that becomes the only accurate description of their greatness.  In the decades that follow, only the finest artists of their generations are mentioned in the same breath as these legends, and their names and music ring just as strong as music trends come and go.  There is one artist who was able to be on both ends of this chain, as even in his earliest days of performing, he was often compared to his mentor and his hero, the great Woody Guthrie.  Though he took his influence from this amazing performer, few artists carved out as brilliant and long-lasting a career as the one and only Bob Dylan.  Serving as perhaps the most important figure in the transition from folk to rock music, the music of Bob Dylan transcends generations, cultures, and all musical boundaries.  Responsible for many of the most treasured songs in history, to single out one song as his "greatest" is nothing short of impossible, as it is difficult to even pick a single song from one of his many stylistic eras.  However, when it comes to his fantastic composing, unique voice, and ability to write some of the most powerful words in history, few songs can compare to his classic 1965 single, "Maggie's Farm."

When one looks at the musical arrangement on "Maggie's Farm," it can clearly be seen as one of the songs in the Dylan catalog that seamlessly bridges together the folk and rock styles.  While still firmly rooted in the folk style, "Maggie's Farm" gives an early sign of the change that would come on Dylan's next album when he would "go electric."  In reality, it would be this song that would ignite the controversy during Dylan's infamous performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.  Organizer Joe Boyd referred to the opening note of the song that evening as, "the loudest thing anybody had ever heard," and yet on the studio version, the lighter, more folk-based elements are still dominant, and it stands as one of his finest musical compositions.  It is a rather straightforward arrangement, centered around Dylan's guitar and the prominent tambourine of Bobby Gregg.  The multiple guitar sound found on "Maggie's Farm" is a truly special sound within the Dylan catalog, and each has its own personality.  From the rhythm of the acoustic playing to the perfectly toned "twang," the combination is fantastic, and it gives the song a great deal of depth.  The final element that makes "Maggie's Farm" such a musical triumph is the harmonica that is also played by Dylan.  This helps to again keep the song rooted in the folk style, and the combination of these more aggressive sounds around the traditional makes "Maggie's Farm" one of the most important songs in the transtion of the musical landscape into the rock format.

Along with the phenomenal musical arrangement, Bob Dylan's vocals on "Maggie's Farm" have proved to be some of the finest of his extraordinary career.  When it comes to honest, straightforward, unaltered singing, one would be hard pressed to find a better example than one finds in Dylan.  The singing on "Maggie's Farm" cements the songs' folk roots, and it very much represents the strongest period of Dylan's vocals.  However, while both the music and singing are superb, as is the case with most of the earlier songs of Bob Dylan, "Maggie's Farm" is all about the brilliant lyrics which Dylan penned.  If the music was not a clear enough sign that Dylan was stepping away from the traditional folk sound, the blues-style lyrics found here make it impossible to ignore.  Clearly tired of the stereotypical folk performer, Dylan takes shots at folk personalities during the middle verses, and yet as is often the case with his words, "Maggie's Farm" can also be interpreted at a much higher level.  In many ways, one can see the song as one of the most scathing protest songs ever composed, as it is easy to read each verse as a cry against the government.  Taking shots at everything from taxes to the military to the dishonestly of politicians, Dylan raises his fist in defiance, and "Maggie's Farm" quickly became an anthem of the oppressed.  In fact, during the decade-plus reign of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister of England, "Maggie's Farm" became the rallying cry of all those who opposed her and her sanctions.

As the decades have passed, it is almost impossible to keep track of all of the artists who have recorded their own version of "Maggie's Farm."  From The Specials to The Grateful Dead to Rage Against The Machine to Richie Havens, countless artists have taken "Maggie's Farm" for their own, and this is one of the many elements that prove the amazing power that the song continues to have more than four decades after it was first recorded.  Furthermore, the lyrics to the song have been pulled or referenced by an ever larger list of artists, from blues to hip-hop, and this proves the wide-ranging reach that the song has gained over the generations.  In many ways, it is these two elements that have made Bob Dylan a piece of musical history that defies definition, as his name alone is truly the only fitting way to describe such a massive talent and influence.  Though one can make the case that his most controversial years were still ahead of him, "Maggie's Farm" gives a peek into the great changes to come, and it also remains one of his finest songs of defiance, regardless of how one interprets the lyrics.  Taking the spirit of fearless rebellion of his mentor, Woody Guthrie, and putting his own spin onto it, one can also see this song as the beginning of the more focused songs of protest that would further Dylan's name as one of the greatest musicians in history.  Recording what is in every way a perfect song, from the more aggressive musical arrangement to the unrestrained lyrical assault, there are few songs that remain as powerful and influential as Bob Dylan's 1965 musical masterpiece, "Maggie's Farm."

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