July 15, 2008

The Bob Dylan song that turned on Jimmy Carter is the one that Barack Obama calls a favorite.

I found it odd — and blogged about it here — that Barack Obama named "Maggie's Farm" as his favorite Bob Dylan song. So I sat up and took notice today, watching the movie "Gonzo" — the documentary about Hunter S. Thompson — when they got to the incident in 1974 when the idiosyncratic journalistic was sitting bored out of his skull trying to ignore a Jimmy Carter speech and this line got him all excited:
I grew up as a landowner's son. But I don't think I ever realized the proper interrelationship between the landowner and those who worked on a farm until I heard Dylan's record, "I Ain't Gonna Work on Maggie's Farm No More." So I come here speaking to you today about your subject with a base for my information founded on Reinhold Niebuhr and Bob Dylan.
In my old post I wondered why Obama had come up with "Maggie's Farm":
Do you believe "Maggie's Farm" is one of his favorites, or do you think they just tried to find a political song that had some appropriate rhetoric? The character in the song is perceiving what's wrong with the farm (the country) and is looking for a change.
A commenter over at Expecting Rain — a Dylan fan site — made the Obama connection too:
Hunter Thompson covered the 72 campaign and championed McGovern. After McGovern dropped the ball by choosing that sweaty Eagleton guy for his running mate, Thompson was disillusioned for years until he saw Jimmy Carter make an early campaign speech to Ted Kennedy and a bunch of lawyers, brazenly criticizing the American legal system.

Thompson was rejuvenated. In the speech, Carter quoted a Dylan song, Maggie's Farm, which Obama is citing now. Maggie's Farm is a metaphor for transcending the political system. Dylan plugged in and played it for the acoustic folkies at Newport Folk Festival to say, "I'm not a symbol of the right or the left, I just want to rock and roll."
I don't know whether this means Obama and Carter are soulmates or Obama is cribbing from Carter's playlist or Obama reads Hunter S. Thompson or it's well known among Democratic campaign advisors that you can push some useful buttons by invoking "Maggie's Farm" or what. I'm just noting the linkage.

And I wanted to tell you I saw the movie "Gonzo." Watch the trailer. You will get an accurate impression of the film from this:



It was a bit long and rambling, but a pretty good documentary about a very interesting writer and his wild life and times. Recommended if you like documentaries and can deal with some heavy-handed comparison of Bush to Nixon and Iraq to Vietnam.

IN THE COMMENTS: Palladian writes:
Just once I'd love to hear a politician who would say something like:

"You know, I don't think I've been the same since I heard the 14th unfinished fugue of J.S. Bach's "Art of the Fugue", specifically the point where Bach inserts as a countersubject the notes corresponding to the letters of his own name. It was that moment that I felt a profound connection between humanity and the universe, between numbers and metaphysics. It was that moment, listening to the ailing old Bach's assertion of his selfhood, coded into his own complex and beautiful system, that I felt truly alive and driven to spend my life devoted to the advancement of civilization and humanity."

But no. It's "Maggie's Farm". Fleetwood Mac. Wyclef Jean. You can't be elected if you actually like music anymore.

50 comments:

hhedberg said...

I've long felt that there was a connection between Dylan's "Maggie's Farm" and a folk song titled "Penny's Farm." You can hear a portion of the Traum brother's version of "Penny's Farm" here There is a youtube audio recording of the entire song by somebody named Natalie Merchant which is really quite good.

Revenant said...

I always thought of "Maggie's Farm" as being like Jim Croce's "Working at the Car Wash Blues", with the speaker being a self-important guy who sees himself, for little reason, as worthy of more than manual labor.

Consider the first verse:

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.

Compare to Croce:

Tried to find me an executive position/But no matter how smooth I talked/they wouldn't listen to the fact that I was a genius/the man said "we got all that we can use"/now I got the steadily depressin'/low down mind-messin'/workin' at the car wash blues

It hadn't occurred to me that the speaker in "Maggie's Farm" might be supposed to be sympathetic (although the "cigar" line stands out).

Methadras said...

I've got to be honest about this. I'm sick of the boomers and their insipid love affair with music and how music is such a life changing influence that even presidential candidates have to proclaim it thus. Namely music from the 60's. Great music to be sure, but boomers give way way way to much credence to something that should be enjoyed, not assimilated as a political apparatus even though the music of that generation was in large part, politically motivated. Just my 2 cents.

Kirby Olson said...

Reinhold Niebuhr was a major Lutheran theologian of the 50s and 60s. He wrote the famous Serenity Prayer, too.

How did that belong in the quote with Bob Dylan?

Niebuhr had a brain the size of Jupiter.

Ann Althouse said...

The other song that "Maggie's Farm" connects to in my mind is that other "Bringing It All Back Home" song "On the Road Again." It's also about being in a rotten place where people are awful to you and needing to leave:

Well, I asked for something to eat
I'm hungry as a hog
So I get brown rice, seaweed
And a dirty hot dog
I've got a hole
Where my stomach disappeared
Then you ask why I don't live here
Honey, I gotta think you're really weird....

Well, there's fist fights in the kitchen
They're enough to make me cry
The mailman comes in
Even he's gotta take a side
Even the butler
He's got something to prove
Then you ask why I don't live here
Honey, how come you don't move?


I used to listen to those songs and wonder where he was that he was restating his experience like that. Seemed like some awful commune. The diet is macrobiotic, and if you need some meat... well, here's a "dirty hot dog."

Ann Althouse said...

Methradas... that's because you didn't have Bob Dylan.

Just ignore us. We'll go away. Eventually.

Ann Althouse said...

Actually, it was in the news this week that he didn't write the Serenity Prayer.

But, jeez, how smart do you have to be to come up with the Serenity Prayer? You just have to get lucky.

Warren Street said...

Actually, it's not about what people think it's about.

It's actually about Dylan's decision to break away from the limitations of the folk music scene--when Dylan played it live, accompanied by Mike Bloomfield--it blew the crowd away because it was played as loud as possible and caused a huge backlash against Dylan.

If Obama means it to be his declaration of independence, then who is he declaring independence from?

Hopefully, he means it to be his distancing of himself from...baby boomers?

Paul Ciotti said...

I don't think "Maggie's Farm" referred so much to the American politican system as it did to the rigid leftwing thought-police which originally claimed Dylan but rejected him and booed him when he wouldn't stay on message.

Revenant said...

that's because you didn't have Bob Dylan.

Someone should tell HIM that, because he keeps releasing albums. :)

hhedberg said...

"Maggie's Farm" and many of these other Dylan songs don't seem to me to have significant meaning. It's mostly word play and stream of consciousness; sort of Louis Carroll or Virginia Woolf on acid. It's "a dirty hot dog" because he likes the meter and the way it rhymes with "hungry as a hog." Also, when you sing it, you get to have fun with the phrasing and the way that the 'ho' sounds of "hog" and "hot" play. It's the way the words sound, flow, and feel, not what they mean.

Ruth Anne Adams said...

But, jeez, how smart do you have to be to come up with the Serenity Prayer? You just have to get lucky.

Or have the wisdom to know the difference.

Baron Zemo said...

We can be sure that Mr. Obama does not care for “All Along the Watchtower” since that is the symbol of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims are very careful not to recognize the symbols of other religions.

chuck b. said...

"Recommended if you like documentaries and can deal with some heavy-handed comparison of Bush to Nixon and Iraq to Vietnam."

Not to change the subject, but I cannot ignore the fact that this statement can also to apply to the documentary Helvetica (about the font) which it happens I watched last night. That's all.

Michael said...

Ann Althouse: ...that's because you didn't have Bob Dylan.

I've heard cats in heat with better pitch control. And I must disagree; In every age, there are no-talent hacks.

Verso said...

I don't know whether this means Obama and Carter are soulmates or Obama is cribbing from Carter's playlist or Obama reads Hunter S. Thompson or it's well known among Democratic campaign advisors that you can push some useful buttons by invoking "Maggie's Farm" or what.

ROFL.

Yes, Ann, everything's a conspiracy*, and it's simply impossible that Obama gave the answer he did simply because he likes the song.


*Well, unless Fox News implies the Obama's are terrorists. Then it's just an innocent little slip that overwrought leftists latch on in an attempt to give the wingnut network a black eye.

Ann Althouse said...

"it's simply impossible that Obama gave the answer he did simply because he likes the song."

that's included in the "or what"... and you know damned well it's minimally likely (unless you just don't know Bob Dylan songs at all).

***

chuck... LOL.

jum1801 said...

Yeah, I never saw the Maggie's Farm character as any working-class hero. Not an attractive kind of guy at all. He was just one of those bad-attitude guys whose vision and goals are limited to seeing how much he can take advantage of, or even hurt, his employer. The kind who snicker about how they screwed up that last production run, or intentionally bashed the washroom window.

jum1801 said...

Yeah, I never saw the Maggie's Farm character as any working-class hero. Not an attractive kind of guy at all. He was just one of those bad-attitude guys whose vision and goals are limited to seeing how much he can take advantage of, or even hurt, his employer. The kind who snicker about how they screwed up that last production run, or intentionally bashed the washroom window.

jum1801 said...

Yeah, I never saw the Maggie's Farm character as any working-class hero. Not an attractive kind of guy at all. He was just one of those bad-attitude guys whose vision and goals are limited to seeing how much he can take advantage of, or even hurt, his employer. The kind who snicker about how they screwed up that last production run, or intentionally bashed the washroom window.

Revenant said...

In every age, there are no-talent hacks.

Dylan is a talented songwriter and lyricist. He just can't sing worth a damn.

Theo Boehm said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Meade said...

"[Dylan] just can't sing worth a damn."

Not true.

He can sing worth a damn. He chooses not to.

Dave said...

I dunno. I listened to a sh*tload of 60s music and hung out with all kindsa hippies and I never, ever had a life-changing experience happen due to any song, songwriter, or singer.

Hmmmmm. Maybe I'm perfect just the way I am. (And as a Boomer, let me tell you that I can get really, really tired of Boomers.)

Palladian said...

I love the idea of Bob Dylan just a little more than the reality.

"I've got to be honest about this. I'm sick of the boomers and their insipid love affair with music and how music is such a life changing influence..."

Just once I'd love to hear a politician who would say something like:

"You know, I don't think I've been the same since I heard the 14th unfinished fugue of J.S. Bach's "Art of the Fugue", specifically the point where Bach inserts as a countersubject the notes corresponding to the letters of his own name. It was that moment that I felt a profound connection between humanity and the universe, between numbers and metaphysics. It was that moment, listening to the ailing old Bach's assertion of his selfhood, coded into his own complex and beautiful system, that I felt truly alive and driven to spend my life devoted to the advancement of civilization and humanity."

But no. It's "Maggie's Farm". Fleetwood Mac. Wyclef Jean. You can't be elected if you actually like music anymore.

hhedberg said...

Just once I'd love to hear a politician who would say something like

I think that Al gore is a big John Cage fan.

Palladian said...

"I think that Al gore is a big John Cage fan."

Another strike against him.

PrestoPundit said...

Looks to me like just another Obama attack on God, people who work hard, and the rule of law:

>>No, I ain't gonna work for Maggie's ma no more.
Well, she talks to all the servants
About man and God and law.
Everybody says
She's the brains behind pa.
She's sixty-eight, but she says she's twenty-four.
I ain't gonna work for Maggie's ma no more.<<

This is a guy who studied with the Critical Legal Studies guys a Harvard. A man who sought out Marxist at Occidental and socialists when he moved to Columbia (read his first book).

NOBODY like "Maggie's Farm" for the music.

So Obama digs the words.

It's O.K. to ask: why in the world?

Revenant said...

NOBODY like "Maggie's Farm" for the music.

Er... I do. It's catchy.

Chris said...

I for one cannot wait until all the boomers are drooling in retirement homes. Your music mostly sucked... And to think that it actually holds some political relevance is beyond absurd. Christ-on-a-motorbike, just stop beoing so damned self-absorbed in your own over wrought generational fantasies.

Johnny said...

Bob Dylan is the greatest singer of our times. No one is better. No one is even close. Jann Wenner, Rolling Stone

What is a good singer - if not one who is able to display true and deep feelings in his song?

Maddad said...

Oh Johnny. Jann Wenner said the same thing about Boz Scaggs and Lou Gramm.

You're quoting a guy who, let's face it, has made a pretty good living smooching the butt of anyone he thinks the kids "dig" these days.

George said...

Carter listened to Dylan the same way Andropov listened to Miles Davis and Bush Sr. listened to country music.

paul a'barge said...

Barak Obama is Jimmah Carter.

paul a'barge said...


Gimme a string bean, man!
A shotgun fired and away I ran

William said...

I spent the second 30 yrs of my life trying to correct all the mistakes made in the first 30 yrs. At one time I was a big fan of Dylan and Thompson. I don't know if that admiration was part of my all around youthful jerkiness or if they were guideposts on the path out of that jerkiness. I suspect the latter. I don't mourn the death of my youthful idealism--I piss on its grave every chance I get.....Mr Jones was the cuckolded husband of Mrs Jones. ("There's something going on but you don't know what it is do you Mr Jones.") In youth one has a dalliance with Mrs. Jones. Mrs Jones represented the pleasures of the moment--sex, dope and revolution. By contrast, Mr Jones turned up on Monday mornings for his shit job on Maggie's farm and never understood the sensual possibilities of life....Well at a certain point one realizes that Maggie's Farm is all you get in life and thus begins the painful metamorphosis from Rimbaud to Mr Jones.... In my experience, work on Maggie's farm for all the drudgery and petty humiliations was, after all, only a fraction of one's life. Mrs Jones with all the comforts of her curves took up a great deal more of one's life and left one emptier and flatter than good ole Maggie.

Johnny said...

The ignorance of maddad obviously knows no limits - the Wenner quote was from a time where Dylan-fans left in thousands, and in Dylan's more unhip days.

What is more interresting is the focus on what qualities a "good" voice really needs. When he tops the charts over 40 years after his debut, as he did with is last record, it's certainly something more than his lyrics. The presence and the intensity in his voice, in his best performances, will beat the polished voices with no content, any day.

Salamandyr said...

I think at least some of Bob Dylan's popularity is the credibility one gets in some crowds by "liking" Bob Dylan. He's a barometer of taste. And I say that as someone who likes him, and never skips past when he comes up on my iPod's shuffle. Most people who claim to like him never seem to actually listen to him.

Palladian, that's an interesting bit about Bach. I didn't know that about his name. I'd love to listen to that piece and have the relevant passage pointed out. But most people (myself included) have middlebrow tastes, and it's no surprise politicians take after the rest of us.

Henry said...

Guiliani, the opera fan, never had a chance.

DADvocate said...

With Obama's theme of "change," I'm surprised he didn't go for Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'"

Sean said...

Well, I try my best
To be just like I am,
But everybody wants you
To be just like them.


Surely those lines from "Maggie's Farm" are ones to which any political candidate could relate. Only thing is, in Obama's case, he seems pretty eager to be whatever most voters would like him to be.

Palladian said...

Salamandyr, here's Glenn Gould playing that last fugue, Contrapunctus XIV (in two parts because it's too long to upload to YouTube in one uninterrupted video).

Contrapunctus XIV video 1
Contrapunctus XIV video 2

Load both videos completely in two browser windows before you start watching them so you can switch over to part 2 quickly. Bach's name (B♭ - A - C - B♮, which is B - A - C - H in German musical notation) appears as the third fugue subject (not counter-subject as I wrote in my earlier comment) which you hear the very end of video one and the very beginning of video two. The last note Gould plays in video one is B♭, the first four notes in video two are B♭ - A - C - B♮, Bach's name.

Please watch the whole thing, and note how Gould's hand snaps up at the end, which is the point where the 1751 edition of the piece breaks off– the unfinished fugue.

Smilin' Jack said...

Dylan sounds a lot better when sung by Joan Baez. Her double album "Any Day Now" is so evocative of the 60s it makes you want to go out and demonstrate against LBJ.

Salamandyr said...

Palladian,

Thank you for the link, and the info.--beautiful piece, I hadn't heard it before.

Roy Lofquist said...

Lots and lots of different opinions as to what the song meant. Same thing with a lot of Dylan's work.

Reminds me of the old joke:

First psychiatrist: Good morning!
Second: Now what did he mean by that?

I decided over 40 years ago to just listen. Kind of a zen thing. True genius has a way of confusing we mortals.

sonicfrog said...

Speaking of Obama and Dylan, check out the new Jib Jab vid! Once again, Perfect!!!

blake said...

Wait, there's a melody to "Maggie's Farm"?

Sorry, I just know the Budokan version. Those renditions are pretty "free" melody-wise. And lyric-wise (i.e., the words he sang were not the words from earlier versions).

No, Dylan is not a great melody writer. Unlike, say, Beatle Paul, who usually comes up with a great melody no matter how awful the rest of the song.

Harmonically, he's not very interesting, either. (cf. Beatle John's "Mind Games".) He solicited Beatle George's help in using more complex chords, resulting in the so-so "I'd Have You Any Time" collaboration. The net effect seems to have been negligible.

Lyrically, he's said "I just want things to rhyme." And there's his brilliance. He made things rhyme, often without sense, allowing a significance-hungry audience to read in what they want.

That's actually a fair definition of (at least one aspect of) art: The ability to solicit the contributions of the observer.

Bach solicits entirely different sorts of contributions of course. Besides the B-a-c-h, you can pretty much find the next 200 years of music history presaged in his work, including passages where, e.g., the twelve tones of the musical scale are played without being repeated.

I've always wondered if Classical music evolved because Bach had tapped out Baroque.

Theo Boehm said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
the-curmudgn said...

Kirby, Carter's mention of Niebuhr in the same breath as Dylan isn't isn't out of left field--it's in the previous paragraph of the Law Day speech, which is quoted over at Expecting Rain.

"My own interest in the criminal justice system is very deep and heartfelt. Not having studied law, I've had to learn the hard way. I read a lot and listen a lot. One of the sources for my understanding about the proper application of criminal justice and the system of equity is from reading Reinhold Niebuhr, one of his books that Bill Gunter gave me quite a number of years ago. The other source of my understanding about what's right and wrong in this society is from a friend of mine, a poet named Bob Dylan. After listening to his records about 'The Ballad of Hattie Caroll' and 'Like a Rolling Stone' and 'The Times, They Are a-Changing,' I've learned to appreciate the dynamism of change in a modern society."

compositeur said...

Just as Dylan's work exists for any & everyone to delve into and try to understand *if* one takes the time and effort to do so, so too does Bach's work. Snarks about whose work is "middlebrow" or what is implied by Al Gore liking John Cage speak only to the shallowness of the people who made those comments.

The original point about Bach was a very strong one -- that politicians never go out of their way to comment on profoundly interesting *abstract* passages like the 14th Contrapunctus, because (a) people unfortunately don't know or value it, and (b) it's abstract and contains no political overtones to capitalize on.