My book The Basic Beliefs of Judaism: A Twenty-first-Century Guide to a Timeless Tradition has just been published. Writing it compelled me to think of how idea systems are structured and about the nature of their constituent elements. Of course, my mind inevitably wandered from trying to provide an organized and systematic explanation of the Jewish articles of faith to other belief systems.
Since I’ve written so much about Bob Dylan, I began to wonder what it would look like to examine Dylan’s basic beliefs. I quickly concluded that, very much like the Judaism I had just written about, it wasn’t possible or even desirable to pretend that there was an easily defined set of such beliefs. Still, surely Dylan had strongly-held beliefs. So I wondered how to locate them.
I finally decided to consider a representative song. My choice is completely arbitrary. I chose it because it was written at a creative and pivotal moment in Dylan’s career.
“Maggie’s Farm,” recorded on January 15, 1965, is most frequently is understood as Dylan’s refusal to go along with the folk movement’s expectations of him, especially that he stick to acoustic rather than electric music and continue to write social and political protests against injustice exclusively rather than write about his personal feelings. The song became a living symbol at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival when Dylan went electric as he sang it.
Proponents of the view that this song is a rebellion against the folk community point out the similarity of Maggie’s name to that of Silas McGee. It was on McGee’s farm that Dylan performed “Only a Pawn in Their Game” for a 1963 civil rights gathering. This song can be seen performed in Dont Look Back. However, it is also plausible that Dylan took the idea of complaining about working on a farm from the 1929 song “Down on Penny’s Farm,” which Dylan had heard on Harry Smith’s iconic collection Anthology of American Folk Music and had used as the basis of an earlier song, “Hard Times in New York Town.” “Maggie’s Farm” also bears some similarities to Gid Tanner and Riley Puckett’s “Tanner’s Farm,” recorded in 1934.
There are two beliefs inherent in these observations. Dylan’s foundational belief in the song is that he will not be chained to any movement, any group that wants to claim and own him as their own. As he asserts in “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” another song on the same Bringing It All Back Home album: “It is not he or she or them or it that you belong to.” He laments that “everybody wants you to be just like them.” Dylan’s crucial belief is in artistic and intellectual independence.
As a rebellion against the folk music movement, it is possible to read the song’s characters as either general types or specific people Dylan knew. For example, when you ask what female ran the “folk music farm,” the answer is obvious: Joan Baez. On this level, the song is a protest against Baez. Pete Seeger was her “brother” in folk legend and power. And who’s the father figure for Dylan in this plot to get him to sing while he slaved? Albert Grossman, his manager. This making the work a song with a key only goes so far, of course, and it’s all conjecture anyway. The bigger point is that the folk community wanted to control Dylan, and he didn’t want to be controlled. To see the characters in more general terms consider Maggie’s ma who is the sort of person who attempts to manipulate others by invoking the support of and hiding behind the authority of “Man and God and Law.”
Dylan’s second basic belief evident in the song is his faith is in traditional music. He may not like movements, but he is grounded in the roots music of American life. If the Bible later came to either replace or supplement the American musical canon, at this stage of his life, Dylan’s truest guide was what he heard in the great music of the country, especially early 20th century blues and country music. If there is any group in which he feels comfortable, it is the community of musicians, so long as he’s not limited to any one musical influence or heritage or any one type of song that he must sing.
There’s a third belief almost hidden away. It’s in the third and fourth lines of the song when he wakes in the morning folds his hands and prays for rain. It’s an odd statement in this angry song because the song mocks belief in others but not in the power of prayer to produce rain. It may be he wants the rain so he won’t have to go outside and pray. The point, though, is he prays at all and believes in the power of prayer. This belief became central as he got older. And just as Dylan didn’t want to be chained to a musical movement, so, too, it would turn out that he didn’t want to be chained to a particular religion. He mistrusted religious groups as much as he mistrusted any other kind of group, and his religion would, stemming from his foundational belief in complete personal freedom, focus on his own relationship to God rather than on his attachment to a religious group.