Bob Dylan Countdown #136: “Maggie’s Farm”Posted: February 11, 2012
The tricky thing about doing this list is to judge the songs based completely solely on how I feel about them, rather than on any type of impact they might have had or the dent they might have left on popular culture. As someone who is fascinated by Dylan’s story, “Maggie’s Farm” holds a special place in my heart. As a song, however, while still pretty great, it falls short of some of the loftier heights of his recording career.
On the recorded version found on Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan and his backing band were still finding their way through this new sound they were creating on the fly. It would all coalesce one album later on Highway 61 Revisited, but at this point it was very much a work in progress. On “Maggie’s Farm,” the guitarists appear to be playing a song all their own, completely independent of what Bob and the rest of the band was doing. Some people find this chaos romantic, but, to me, it distracts somewhat from the thrust of the lyrics.
Those lyrics are undoubtedly powerful, whether they’re taken at face value as the lament of a servant dealing with the members of a domineering family, or as an allegory for a songwriter trapped in his own success. Dylan, as always, uses his humor as a way to disarm and distract. In this song, his one-liners about his tormentors can be heard as impotent wisecracks.
That helplessness is what’ I think is often missed in interpretations of “Maggie’s Farm.” It’s easy to read the song as Dylan’s own Declaration of Independence, especially when you consider its placement as the first song in the infamous Newport Folk Festival show. But, to me, the narrator, who doesn’t necessarily have to be a stand-in for Dylan, is desperate for his escape that may not ever come to pass. In that sense, the song is a testament to oppression’s powerful hold on its victims.
The last verse certainly seems to favor the autobiographical view, but that doesn’t necessarily negate my previous thoughts that this is a song for many and not just for one. Notice the pronoun switch in one of the famous couplets: “Well I try my best to be just like I am/But everybody wants you to be just like them.” Dylan could have said, “Everybody wants me to be just like them” in the second line. By writing it to “you,” that last verse becomes a universal rallying cry and not just his own personal manifesto.
In terms of iconic importance, “Maggie’s Farm” is near the top of the Dylan heap. Yet one of the things that makes it so iconic, that raucous, mangled recording, is also what holds it back from being a finer musical achievement.