Times Are Bad

‘Hard Times Come Again No More’ (sometimes titled simply as ‘Hard Times’) is an American parlor song that was written by Stephen Foster in 1854.  Foster spent much of his time in Pittsburgh and in the mid 1850’s, when Pittsburgh was in the grip of out of control unemployment and disease and cholera that had killed 400 people one summer.  This song was likely inspired by the growing political divisions and rising tensions in the United States at the time, the issue of slavery was poised to rip the nation apart in the Civil War, and the nation’s economy was rapidly transforming thanks to the rise of factories in the North and growing infrastructure.  The nation would soon find itself falling on hard times.

The song ‘Down On Penny’s Farm’ is a traditional folksong that was first recorded and released by The Bentley Boys in 1929. This song originated in the American south, dealing with the exploitation of sharecroppers just after the conclusion of the American Civil War.  The renters are subjected to dreadful conditions including bad land, houses with no windows that have cracks in the walls, low income, high expenses, and the added threat of having to be put on a chain gang to pay off their debt.

It is thought that ‘Down On Penny’s Farm’ was developed from the song ‘Hard Times Come Again No More’ as there is a line in the song that says, “It’s a hard time in the country, down on Penny’s farm”.  Bob Dylan’s song ‘Maggie’s Farm’ is a protest song that may have been developed from ‘Down On Penny’s Farm’, illustrating that when power is concentrated it inevitably becomes misguided.  In the song Dylan is trying to be a nonconformist, by comparing a musician who is trapped into a particular mode of expressing himself because he must follow the rules that Maggie and her family have created which have become a type of slavery for him.  When Dylan sings, “I ain’t going to work on Maggie’s Farm no more”, he means that he was not going to be part of the conventions of music anymore, as he wanted to do things his own way.

Bob Dylan appeared at the Newport Folk festival three times and his first time there was in 1963, when he was an obscure young singer, little known to anyone that was outside of the Greenwich Village scene.  He appeared as a guest of Joan Baez, who was far better known than him as she had recently appeared on the cover of Time magazine.  Dylan was received enthusiastically when he performed ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ with Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary, and other Festival performers.  At the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, Dylan performed ‘With God on Our Side’ and ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ where he also got positive reviews.  In 1965, Bob Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival, performing a rock-and-roll set publicly for the very first time, amidst a chorus of shouts and boos that rained down on him from a dismayed audience.  With guitarist and organist Al Kooper and guitarist and piano player Michael Bloomfield, bassist Jerome Arnold and drummer Sam Lay from The Paul Butterfield Blues Band backing him, Dylan took to the stage with his Fender Stratocaster on the evening of July 25 and launched into an electrified version of ‘Maggie’s Farm’.  This set of music included three songs, those being, ‘Maggie’s Farm’, ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, and ‘Phantom Engineer’, all of which offended his fans, but this electric sound fundamentally changed the way Dylan viewed his art and it resulted in one of the most infamous concerts in modern history.

It is thought that the booing was caused by a number of incidents, including a bad sound system that made Dylan’s words sound garbled, however this does not show up on the recording.  There was a long rain delay which usually gets people pissed off, especially if they got wet or muddy because of this.  There was also a physical fight that erupted between Alan Lomax one of the organizers of the festival and Albert Grossman who managed both Dylan and the Butterfield Blues Band. Maybe the folk music fans were just not ready for electric guitars?  Peter Yarrow (of Peter Paul and Mary, and another of the Festival’s organizers) persuaded Dylan to return to the stage to sing a few more songs.  Dylan borrowed an acoustic guitar (allegedly from Johnny Cash) and opened with ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ and the acoustic set seemed to placate everyone.  ‘Maggie’s Farm’ was written for his 1965 album, Bringing It All Back Home and until this time, Bob Dylan was a folk singer who performed solo acoustic songs.

This song is about escaping the boredom of work, especially when you have a job being an unskilled servant where you will never get any prestige.  This guy is praying for rain, so he will not have to work on Maggie’s farm.  The man in the song has a head full of ideas, but he is told that he must do menial tasks like scrubbing the floor.  Next Maggie’s brother pays this guy an insignificant wage, but after he fines the guy for doing such things like slamming the door and he gets his money back that way.  Maggie’s father puts his cigar out in this guy’s face just for kicks, his window is made out of bricks keeping him secluded and the National Guard stands around his door, probably to protect him from being attacked by all those who despise him.  Maggie’s mother is also a piece of work, as she talks to all the servants about man and God and law, she’s probably the brains behind pa and she lies about her age saying that she’s only twenty-four.  The guy tries to do his best, but he wants to be his own person and not be like the others that are working on Maggie’s farm that are putting up with all the bullshit and singing while they slave which gets boring.

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 up 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, nah
I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more
I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s brother no more
Nah, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s brother no more
Well, he hands you a nickel
And he hands you a dime
And he asks you with a grin
If you’re havin’ a good time
Then he fines you every time you slam the door
I ain’t gonna work for, nah
I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s brother no more

I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s pa no more
No, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s pa no more
Well, he puts his cigar
Out in your face just for kicks
His bedroom window
It is made out of bricks
The National Guard stands around his door
I ain’t gonna work, nah
I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s pa no more
I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s ma no more
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
And 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, nah
I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s ma no more

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 try my best
To be just like I am
But everybody wants you
To be just like them
They sing while they slave and just get bored
I ain’t gonna work on, nah
I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more

 

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