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(P. D. arr. Lennon – McCartney – Harrison - Starkey)
John Lennon appeared to be in a jam. Having just poured out his heart and soul in composing a plethora of songs for their adventurous self-titled album known as the “White Album,” Paul was eager to quickly move on to the next Beatles project. Only six weeks after their long-awaited double-album follow-up to “Sgt. Pepper” was released, the band was ushered into rehearsals for what became the “Let It Be” film and soundtrack album. And of course, new songs were needed.
McCartney never seemed to be lacking new material. He had many already up his sleeve by January 2nd, 1969, the first day of rehearsals. John brought in a couple as well because of the need but was nowhere near as prepared as Paul was. George even dwarfed John with proposed song ideas. Ringo as well had three new unfinished songs that he presented during this month.
In a pinch, John thought to resurrect some old abandoned ideas as well as dredge up one particular ditty from his childhood that he seriously wanted to include in the project. This song, with origins that date back to the early 1800's, was titled “Maggie Mae.” A Beatles performance of the song may not have materialized in the way he intended, but it did at least get included on the release in a truncated form at his insistence.
Lime Street, Liverpool, England, circa the 1890's
“Oh, my charming Nellie Ray / they have taken you away /
you have gone to Van Dieman's cruel shore /
For you've skinned so many tailors / and you've robbed so many sailors /
that we'll look for you in Peter Street no more”
Above is the earliest known lyric to a traditional Liverpool folk song that is known to have dated back to the early 1800's about an actual prostitute and thief named Nellie Ray. Mention of this song is found in the diary of Charles Picknell, a man who sailed on a ship in 1830 that transported convicted female criminals to Van Dieman's Land, later named Tasmania, to serve out her sentence. Apparently, Nellie Ray was the name of a prostitute and thief that was on that ship, her being found guilty of seducing and robbing sailors who had just returned from sea. She would peruse “Peter Street,” an actual street in Liverpool, England, to find her victims.
As history reveals, sailors returning to Liverpool from their stint at sea (Liverpool being a seaport town) would go to the Liverpool Sailor's Home in Canning Place to be paid. After possibly many lonely months at sea, this area would be frequented by prostitutes who would lure them into indiscretions in order to take their money and, if lucky, their possessions and clothes. The plan was, after the men were exhausted and asleep, to take their clothes and possessions to a pawn shop for whatever they could get. Once notorious for this crime, the would inevitably be caught and convicted.
In the early 1800's these convicted women would many times be relocated to penal colonies where, when after there time had been served, they wouldn't have the financial means to return home. This gave rise to the lyrics of this traditional folk song about the perpetrators not being able to “walk down Lime Street anymore,” another Liverpool street that appeared in various later versions of the tune.
There are, in fact, many variations of this Liverpudlian folk song, some taking on presumed origination in other localities. For instance, there is a similar documented song about the slave trade that has a claim of being written by Benjamin Hanby in 1856 titled “Darling Nellie Gray.” The lyrics, while similar in phrasing and meter to those detailed above, speak of an African-American woman who had been taken away from her lover to become a slave, both of them being reunited in heaven after their deaths. Apparently, this song was an adaptation of the original “Nellie Gray” song that originated in Liverpool as mentioned above.
However, John Lennon was oblivious to all of this, as were the rest of The Beatles!
This traditional Liverpool folk song, which became “popular among seaman all over the world” under the name “Maggie May,” according to the “Penguin Australian Song Book,” worked its way to becoming near and dear to John Lennon's heart due to it being a staple in Liverpool, his home town. This being a seaport town, his father Alfred Lennon being a seaman by trade, the familiar version of “Maggie May” in the late 1950's tells of a prostitute who robs a “homeward bounder,” a sailor who just returned from his hired stint at sea, taking his money and belongings and then being found guilty by “the judge.”
John would have become familiar with the song, no doubt, because of its popularity as a skiffle song recorded in 1957 by The Vipers Skiffle Group. This record was banned from BBC radio because of its suggestive lyrics, despite their attempt at cleaning up the words somewhat. Interestingly, this recording of “Maggie May” was produced by George Martin, future Beatles producer. Since the teenage John Lennon loved the new skiffle craze that was taking hold at the time, he incorporated the song within the repertoire of his band “The Quarrymen” that year, as well as in 1958 and 1959 after Paul had joined the group. The lyrics to The Vipers Skiffle Group version of the song were as follows:
“Oh, Maggie, Maggie May / they have taken her away /
and she'll never walk down Lime Street anymore /
Well, that judge he guilty found her / for robin' a homeward bounder /
you dirty robbin' no good, Maggie May /
Now I was paid off at the Pool / in the port of Liverpool /
well, three pound ten a week that was my pay /
With a pocket full of tin / I was very soon taken in /
by a gal with the name of Maggie May”
The Beatles also became acquainted with a 1964 Lionel Bart musical entitled “Maggie May,” which was a popular Novello Award-winning British production that dealt with trade union ethics and disputes among Irish-Catholic dockers in Liverpool. The plot of the musical centered around prostitute Margaret Mary Duffey and her sailor sweetheart. An altered version of the traditional folk song was featured in the production under the name “Maggie, Maggie May,” which was also popularized by Judy Garland, who released her version of the song under this pretext on her 1964 “Maggie May” EP. The lyrics of “Maggie, Maggie May,” as featured in the Lionel Bart musical, includes the following lyrics:
“Oh, Maggie, Maggie May / whose been giving it away /
and it's me you'll soon be adding to the score /
Oh, with you is so sublime / I'll pay double-overtime /
and you'll never walk down Lime Street anymore”
With all of this in mind, this song was a given to be busked out in-between takes of songs The Beatles were working on in 1969 while the cameras and tapes were rolling. John apparently felt strong enough about including this legendary song in their current project that they ran through it on certain occasions. Lennon wanted to film and record it officially on January 31st, 1969, the designated final day of the project, but it never materialized.
The Beatles in Apple Studios, January 24th, 1969
On January 24th, 1969, the 13th day of rehearsals for what became the “Let It Be” film and album, The Beatles convened in their basement Apple Studios to work on new compositions earmarked for inclusion in this current project. They rehearsed both “Get Back” and “Two Of Us” extensively so as to solidify their arrangements but, as was their habit, they were easily distracted and regularly jammed other songs, old and new.
While rehearsing their newly decided acoustic guitar arrangement of Paul's song “Two Of Us,” or “On Our Way Home” as it was titled at the time, John three times decided to break the tedium by leading the group through a favorite of his from The Quarrymen days, the skiffle song “Maggie May.” With both John and Paul on acoustic guitars, George on his newly-acquired Rosewood Fender Telecaster and Ringo and drums, this song was a natural to break into to ease the tension, John playing the song on acoustic guitar (using banjo chords) back in the skiffle days.
The first ad-lib rendition lasted nearly a minute long, two choruses and one verse being included regardless of them not remembering the lyrics to the verse after “Two pound ten a week, that was my pay.” After flubbing through the remainder of the bridge, they repeated the chorus a second time, Paul then exclaiming “take it, Maggie!” before he segues the song into “Fancy My Chances With You,” an early Lennon / McCartney composition that was never developed into a Beatles song. An edited version of this impromptu performance, excluding the bridge of “Maggie Mae,” was featured in the “Fly On The Wall” bonus disc that was included with the “Let It Be...Naked” album of 2003.
After a second version of “Maggie Mae” was attempted in-between later takes of “Two Of Us” that lasted just over ten seconds, it surfaced once again a little later. With Glyn Johns rolling the tapes with the intention of capturing an acceptable performance of “Two Of Us,” John started off “Maggie Mae” once again, this slightly slower version allowing the song to breathe a little more than the Vipers Skiffle Group version that it was based on. Wisely, the song fell apart precisely at the point where John forgot the words to the song, this rendition lasting 39 seconds. True to its Liverpudlian origin, John and Paul sang the song in an appropriately strong 'scouse' accent. Since this was captured on eight-track tape, it was easily remembered by Lennon as an interesting highlight to the fun had during this January project.
John apparently felt strongly enough about including “Maggie Mae” in this project that on January 31st, 1969, the very last designated day of recording for what became the “Let It Be” film and album, he wanted to capture a proper version of The Beatles performing the song. After the first filmed version of the song “Let It Be” was cut short because of Paul continuously popping his microphone on the word “be,” John states, “Poppin's in man. I'll never get 'Maggie Mae' done if it goes on like this!” The three main songs to be recorded on this day were all Paul's, these being “Let It Be,” “Two Of Us” and “The Long And Winding Road.” John apparently also wanted to squeeze in “Maggie Mae” but, since it took so long to perfect these three songs, either exhaustion or boredom took over once they were in the can. After they finally nailed all three of Paul's compositions, John exclaimed “OH, YES!” and left for the day, relieved that the project had finally come to a close.
By March 10th, 1969, producer Glyn Johns was given the task of assembling the next Beatles album from the January sessions. Starting from that Monday, Johns worked each day at Olympic Sound Studios through Thursday, March 13th, isolating what he considered the best Beatles performances from all of these session tapes. On this Thursday, he discovered that the third quick version of “Maggie Mae” that was recorded in-between takes of “Two Of Us” would make a nice link track for the proposed album, which was tentatively titled “Get Back” in conjunction with the single that was to be released in April. Johns thereby, with George Martin possibly present, created a stereo mix of “Maggie Mae” for inclusion on the proposed album.
This “Get Back” album was finalized at Olympic Sound Studios on May 28th, 1969, with George Harrison present, as the master tape banding and compilation took place on this day. Appropriately, “Maggie Mae,” which was spelled differently than “Maggie May” as on the Vipers Skiffle Group's record, was sequenced on side two directly after “Two Of Us,” although the entire album was shelved indefinitely at this point due to The Beatles' disapproval of the overall results.
With the January 1969 project now being prepared as a movie to be released sometime in 1970, Glyn Johns was given another crack at assembling what would now be considered a soundtrack album to the film. He entered Olympic Sound Studios on January 5th, 1970 to perform some last minute stereo mixes and then to put together the album's running order, the project still being referred to as “Get Back.” He once again placed the same mix of “Maggie Mae” on side two directly following “Two Of Us.” As it turned out, this proposed album was also rejected by The Beatles, one reason being that John Lennon objected to Glyn Johns's request of be listed as producer.
By mid-March 1970, with the film being prepared for release, legendary producer Phil Spector was hired to assemble and re-produce what now was titled the “Let It Be” soundtrack album. On March 26th, 1970, he entered Room 4 of EMI Studios to create yet another stereo mix of “Maggie Mae,” this being a simple remix of the same take that Glyn John's had done back on March 10th, 1969. It only took Phil Spector two attempts at getting a proper stereo mix of this 39 second track, engineers Peter Bown and Roger Ferris assisting him with this duty. This has become the official Beatles version of the song to this day.
Sometime in 2003, after Paul had summoned for a Phil Spector-less version of the “Let It Be” album to be produced and released, an engineering team assembled at Abbey Road Studios to create the “Let It Be...Naked” album. While “Maggie Mae” did not earn a place in the official running order of this album, the first Beatles ad-lib rendition of the song was included within the 22-minute “Fly On The Wall” bonus disc that was compiled and edited by Kevin Howlett and Brian Thompson. The first and second chorus of the song was edited together and then let run into an impromptu performance of the early Lennon / McCartney composition “Fancy My Chances With You.”
Song Structure and Style
This brief rendition of “Maggie Mae” has the aborted structure 'chorus / verse' (or ab). If The Beatles had performed the entire song, we would have seen a continued repetition between choruses and verses, but this impromptu version didn't get as far as they would have liked had John remembered more of the lyrics on the fly.
After an introductory acoustic guitar strum from John, his band-mates jump in immediately, knowing that he wanted to reprise the song as they had done twice before that day. The standard eight-measure chorus has John on acoustic guitar and lead vocal, Paul on acoustic guitar and harmony vocal, George playing some ad-lib picking on electric guitar, and Ringo playing a standard swing beat on drums while riding on his hi-hats. At the end of the chorus, when it appears that the song might conclude there, Ringo offers up a small drum fill and cymbal crash.
As John insists on attempting the eight-measure verse that follows by singing lead and continuing his guitar strumming, Ringo acquiesces by tapping out some beats on his cymbals. At the conclusion of the first measure, both Paul and George respond also by plucking on their guitars. On the third measure, since Paul doesn't remember the words, he contributes a backing “aaah” melody line to compliment John's lead vocal. At this point, Lennon has to acknowledge that his memory is giving out and stops playing and singing entirely, leaving Paul, George and Ringo to end the song as gracefully as possible.
This results in the verse being only four measures in length, the final phrase “two pound ten a week, that was my pay” becoming the final word but leaving the story hanging in the air. As the needle on the record then ran to the run-out groove (the tone arm possibly returning to its stand), the listener was left wondering why The Beatles wouldn't have brought this entertaining story to a conclusion. But then again, fans of the group were getting used to just this sort of thing, the hidden track “Her Majesty” from their most recent “Abbey Road” album being a prime example.
“Maggie Mae” was released in the US on the “Let It Be” soundtrack album on May 18th, 1970. It was distributed in a gatefold jacket in America, as opposed to the box set with photo book that was released in the UK. It spent four weeks in the top spot of the Billboard album chart and has sold well over four million copies in America alone. Interestingly, initial pressings of the album credit the song on the label only as "(P.D.)" for public domain, whereas later pressings credit the band members for the arrangement as "(P.D. arr. Lennon; McCartney; Harrison; Starkey).
Being distributed by United Artists Records upon initial release, despite having a red Apple Records label, it eventually was dropped by the UA label's roster a few years after its release. While Capitol kept all other US Beatles albums in print throughout the 70's, “Let It Be” was the only LP from the group that wasn't legitimately available for a number of years. This was rectified in 1978, however, when Capitol Records purchased the UA catalog and re-released the “Let It Be” album once again, this time in a standard non-gatefold cover. The album first appeared on compact disc on October 10th, 1987, and then as a remastered CD on September 9th, 2009.
November 17th, 2003, was the release date for “Let It Be...Naked,” an album, a project that was proposed by Paul McCartney to strip away all overdubs, the most noteworthy being Phil Spector's orchestration, to present the material as they originally intended. A bonus disc was included with this release entitled “Fly On The Wall,” an edited section of The Beatles' first attempt at “Maggie Mae” on January 24th, 1969 being included therein.
Neither The Beatles nor any individual Beatle has ever dared to include “Maggie Mae” in their concert set lists. However, Paul made a cameo in the 2017 Johnny Depp film “Pirates Of The Caribean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” that is of note here. McCartney appears in a prison scene in the role of “Uncle Jack,” Captain Jack Sparrow's paternal uncle. As Johnny Depp's character approaches “Uncle Jack” in his prison cell, Paul's character is singing the traditional Liverpudlian folk song “Maggie Mae.” We can clearly hear him singing “...the judge, he guilty found her / robbing the homeward bounderrrrrr...” before his dialog with Captain Jack Sparrow commences. Paul finishes his conversation with Captain Jack Sparrow by stating, “Oh, if they disembowel you, ask for Victor. He's got the softest hands!...And mention my name. They won't cut your feet off!”
For those who insist that the “Get Back / Let It Be” project was the worst experience of their career, and that they were miserable and at each others throats the whole time, I offer the following as evidence to the contrary. They were enjoying their experience this month so much that they couldn't resist running through an endless list of oldies, most of them non-originals, that they admired at the time or that they grew up with. While there were admittedly some tense moments, even to the point of George temporarily quitting The Beatles, no one can tell me they weren't having any fun at all that January.
While it had become common practice for The Beatles to blow off some steam in the studio by running through an oldie or two, the looser atmosphere at Twickenham Film Studios, and especially at their more comfortable Apple Studios, habitually led to them busking out any song that popped into any one of their heads at any given time. Within this framework came ad-lib renditions of “Bye Bye Love,” “Shake Rattle And Roll,” “Tracks Of My Tears,” “Not Fade Away,” “Rip It Up,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” “You Really Got A Hold On Me,” “Besame Mucho,” “The Walk,” “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” and many, many others.
Producer Glyn Johns recognized the fun they were having during these sessions. Therefore, when initially given the responsibility to put together a new Beatles album from these sessions, he included their excellent rendition of The Drifter's hit “Save The Last Dance For Me,” as well as their aborted run-through of “Maggie Mae.” Even Phil Spector, when ultimately given the job of putting together the soundtrack album for the “Let It Be” movie, thought to demonstrate the fun atmosphere of these sessions by including “Maggie Mae,” as well as the impromptu jam “Dig It.”
While “Maggie Mae” has earned the distinction of being the next-to-shortest song in their catalog (the winner being the 23-second “Her Majesty”), and it being the final cover song they released during their career, it stands as testimony that The Beatles really did enjoy each others company – even during January of 1969.
Written by: Public Domain arranged by John Lennon / Paul McCartney / George Harrison / Richard Starkey
- Song Written: early 1800's through 1957
- Song Recorded: January 24, 1969
- First US Release Date: March 11, 1970
- First US Album Release: Apple #AR-34001 “Let It Be”
- British Album Release: Apple #PCS 7096 “Let It Be”
- US Single Release: n/a
- Highest Chart Position: n/a
- Length: :39
- Key: G major
- Producer: George Martin (Phil Spector)
- Engineers: Glyn Johns, Neil Richmond
Instrumentation (most likely):
- John Lennon - Lead Vocals, Acoustic Guitar (1964 Gibson J-160E)
- Paul McCartney - Acoustic Guitar (1967 Martin D-28), backing vocals
- George Harrison - Lead Guitar (1968 Fender Rosewood Telecaster)
- Ringo Starr - Drums (1968 Ludwig Hollywood Maple)
Written and compiled by Dave Rybaczewski
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