So many lacklustre live versions over the years have made this song lose its shine. The simple melody unfortunately seems consciously designed to permit latter day Bob to mumble the lyrics incomprehensibly. But it is surely one of Dylan’s most famous protest songs, and one that can really rock.
The narrator doesn’t want to work on Maggie’s farm no more. Now, it’s been joked that Dylan would hardly make a very productive farmhand, and that Maggie would have fired him long ago… but the farm has been interpreted to represent many things: industrial exploitation of workers, racism if the employees are African American, overly powerful governments, the military, and more. The song is also widely seen as Dylan’s kiss off to folk music: a protest song against the protest songs he became typecast with; he performed it at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival in a raw, electric blues manner off putting to many, but perhaps necessary to free this artist to move on to other challenges.
One mark of a truly great folk and protest song is when it can mean many things to many people, but also not be so vague as to be meaningless. Dylan achieves this here. If we could tie the interpretations together with a common thread, Maggie’s Farm is like a countercultural rallying call, an anthem of nonconformity presaging or welcoming the late 1960s hippy movement. At least, a message to us all to not follow the crowd so readily. Alas, all of us going separate ways brings challenges for governing society that is easier done with a predictable, homogeneous agglomeration of individuals. So be it?