Why This Song Is So Good: Maggie’s Farm

Song: “Maggie’s Farm” by Bob Dylan

This is one of Bob Dylan’s first songs when he started moving away from acoustic folk to a more “electric” sound (read: bigger, louder). It was 1965, he was 23 years old, time for a change, right?

      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 in the morning
      Fold my hands and pray for rain
      I got a head full of ideas
      That are drivin’ 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

The four verses that follow are in the same form: two lines of refrain, five lines of verse proper, then a refrain line again. With each verse, a substitution is made for “farm” in the refrain lines: brother, pa, ma, then back to farm again. So it’s not just a farm the speaker is talking about, it’s a whole family.

The song begins briskly: Just a few seconds of jangly guitar, then the speaker’s plaintive voice starts right in. Who is this whiny youth, and who is this weird family he’s working for? And what exactly is this song about?

I’m usually less interested in what a song means or what its lyricist intended than by how the song is put together, how it works, how the overall sound makes you feel when you listen to it. But let me throw out some possibilities, just because it’s fun to do so:

Dylan’s own family back in Minnesota? Dylan’s mental state? The folk music world or music business? The life of sharecroppers or farm workers? (Think Dylan’s idol Woody Guthrie here.) Could this even be a civil rights song? After all, this song was written less than a year and a half after Dylan sang at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963.

So how did he do it? Several things in this song are interesting, starting with the way Dylan sings the opening “I” in several lines. It sounds to me like a drawn-out, falling “Ah,” almost a lament.

The song also has an unusual rhyme scheme. Using Alfred Corn’s notation, where uppercase letters indicate refrain lines, I would give it as AAbcdcaA.

Normally the rhyme scheme of a pop song’s verses is independent of any rhyme scheme the chorus might have. But here Dylan has rhymed the last line of the verse proper with the refrain lines. And since the refrain lines always end with “more,” that means he had to come up with a word for each verse that rhymes with that: floor, door, door, four, bored. (Dylan also rhymes the last line of each verse with the first line of the chorus in “Like a Rolling Stone.”)

Most lines are also end-stopped, even if they’re not punctuated (songwriters often omit terminal punctuation). When Dylan sings this song, he pauses after every line, with no pauses within a line except after the occasional comma (and barely there). If you understand the rule of “line break = pause,” then you pretty much know how to recite or sing these lyrics.

Is there anger behind these lyrics, and is this a family dynamic song? What is the relationship of the speaker to Maggie’s family? Is he possibly a disaffected son or son-in-law? (This is not Dylan’s only song where the speaker is apparently part of a weird family. See also “One More Cup of Coffee.”)

And if there is anger, what specifically would that anger be all about? Let’s review the speaker’s complaints: Well, Maggie makes him scrub the floor, brother fines you if you break the rules, pa is sadistic and paranoid (surely exaggerated), ma preaches nonsense to the help, and as a group everyone is too cheerful at their labors. That’s it?

Other bands have covered this song in ways that emphasize the implicit anger. Here’s one that really showcases such an interpretation:

© 10 Franks 2022

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