Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Bob Dylan: Asking Questions About "Mississippi"

Every step of the way we walk the line
Your days are numbered, so are mine
Time is pilin' up, we struggle and we scrape
We're all boxed in, nowhere to escape

City's just a jungle, more games to play
Trapped in the heart of it, trying to get away
I was raised in the country, I been workin' in the town
I been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down

Got nothing for you, I had nothing before
Don't even have anything for myself anymore
Sky full of fire, pain pourin' down
Nothing you can sell me, I'll see you around

All my powers of expression and thoughts so sublime
Could never do you justice in reason or rhyme
Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long

Well, the devil's in the alley, mule's in the stall
Say anything you wanna, I have heard it all
I was thinkin' about the things that Rosie said
I was dreaming I was sleeping in Rosie's bed

Walking through the leaves, falling from the trees
Feeling like a stranger nobody sees
So many things that we never will undo
I know you're sorry, I'm sorry too

Some people will offer you their hand and some won't
Last night I knew you, tonight I don't
I need somethin' strong to distract my mind
I'm gonna look at you 'til my eyes go blind

Well I got here following the southern star
I crossed that river just to be where you are
Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long

Well my ship's been split to splinters and it's sinking fast
I'm drownin' in the poison, got no future, got no past
But my heart is not weary, it's light and it's free
I've got nothin' but affection for all those who've sailed with me

Everybody movin' if they ain't already there
Everybody got to move somewhere
Stick with me baby, stick with me anyhow
Things should start to get interesting right about now

My clothes are wet, tight on my skin
Not as tight as the corner that I painted myself in
I know that fortune is waitin' to be kind
So give me your hand and say you'll be mine

Well, the emptiness is endless, cold as the clay
You can always come back, but you can't come back all the way
Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long

"Mississippi" is one amazing Dylan song for a variety of reasons. Of all the songs that get placed on a "Dylan's best song" list, "Mississippi" seems, to me, the most ephemeral of all. While songs like "Visions of Johanna" "Desolation Row" "Chimes of Freedom" clearly aren't traditional "story telling" songs, they none the less are chock full of images; they are overflowing with meaning, whereas "Mississippi" seems to barely trickle meaning, is more like a leaky faucet than the burst dams of those other songs.

More than any other Dylan song it seems like some odd alchemy of words that barely whisper meaning mixed with a strong performance create a result that is so surprisingly impressive. All the various versions (see here, here and here) lead up to the final album version and that version is clearly the best because it finds that amazing contrast between a lyric that descends into a sort of darkness sung against a progression that ascends into light, counteracting the despair.

One way the song works in to create a sense of urgency in the opening verse. "Our days are numbered, there's no escape." A good chunk of Dylan's best work sets up a dichotomy of "light/dark" "urban/rural" and this does too in the second verse's "I was raised in the country, I been workin' in the town."

The song's structure is comprised of 12 verses arranged in three sets of four verses each and each of those three sets leading up to the repeating enigma: "Only one thing I did wrong / Stayed in Mississippi a day too long."

Here's where the greater context of Love and Theft enters the picture and contributes meaning to "Mississippi." Mississippi has nothing to do with the song per se, but fits into the larger puzzle of the record as a kind of tour through the reconstructed South.

Sung in the first person, it has a narrator; it's just that the narrator is less forthcoming than any other on any other song. To fill 12 verses and say.... almost nothing. It’s like a Steely Dan song.

"Mississippi" is a perfect example of a Dylan song that really resists "interrogation" (you could water board this song and it still isn't giving anything up). But there are two different approaches -- in the first you take a song, sit it in a chair and shine a 100 watt light in its eyes and ask it where it was on the evening of October 5th. That won't work here.

It is the other approach that works -- you take the song to the pub, not to "get it drunk" but to get drunk with it. You sit and drink 6 pints each and it tells you its secrets as you tell it a few of your own.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Bob Dylan: "Floater (Too Much To Ask)"

Recently, I spent the first half of a day listening to the last three albums by Bob Dylan in the order of their release: Love and Theft (2001), Modern Times (2006) and Together Through Life (2009). Each record shares the trait of all great art in rewarding repeat visits. It wasn’t until sometime in 2003 that I realized that Love and Theft was the best album Dylan had ever made. Right now I am of the opinion that Modern Times has the slightest edge over the other two.

The writing on all three is some of Dylan’s best, but the writing on Love and Theft is particularly rich. At the half-way point, the song “Floater (Too Much To Ask)” shows up. Musically, the album is a tour of the popular music of America in the 20th Century, and this song sounds like something from the 1930s-1940s. Lyrically, however, its sixteen verses seem to flash on the screen like scratchy black & white home movies from rural Tennessee circa 1938.

Down over the window
Comes the dazzling sunlit rays
Through the back alleys - through the blinds
Another one of them endless days

Honeybees are buzzin'
Leaves begin to stir
I'm in love with my second cousin
I tell myself I could be happy forever with her

I keep listenin' for footsteps
But I ain't hearing any
From the boat I fish for bullheads
I catch a lot, sometimes too many

A summer breeze is blowing
A squall is settin' in
Sometimes it's just plain stupid
To get into any kind of wind

The character who sings the song is a gentleman we only ever see out of the corner of our eye as we look at the various things he’s describing. Sometimes he describes aspects of everyday life, but other times he describes his own inner thoughts and feelings and we are offered little insights into his psyche.

The old men 'round here, sometimes they get
On bad terms with the younger men
But old, young, age don't carry weight
It doesn't matter in the end

One of the boss' hangers-on
Comes to call at times you least expect
Try to bully ya - strong arm you - inspire you with fear
It has the opposite effect

As the song proceeds it builds up this rhythm moving back and forth between description and autobiography.

There's a new grove of trees on the outskirts of town
The old one is long gone
Timber two-foot six across
Burns with the bark still on

They say times are hard, if you don't believe it
You can just follow your nose
It don't bother me - times are hard everywhere
We'll just have to see how it goes

My old man, he's like some feudal lord
Got more lives than a cat
Never seen him quarrel with my mother even once
Things come alive or they fall flat

Even in the technology stock boom of the 1990s you’d still have been safe singing about times being hard. Times are always hard (and, for that matter, always changing).

You can smell the pine wood burnin'
You can hear the school bell ring
Gotta get up near the teacher if you can
If you wanna learn anything

Romeo, he said to Juliet, "You got a poor complexion.
It doesn't give your appearance a very youthful touch!"
Juliet said back to Romeo, "Why don't you just shove off
If it bothers you so much."

They all got out of here any way they could
The cold rain can give you the shivers
They went down the Ohio, the Cumberland, the Tennessee
All the rest of them rebel rivers

I wonder if, as he’s spun this tale, this man has been sipping something a bit stronger than sweet tea. We’re offered advice (“Sit close to the teacher”), some thoroughly odd and oblique Shakespeare reference, and that utterly fantastic alliteration, “rest of them rebel rivers.”

I wonder about how alcohol effects people differently when he suddenly stops to remind us:

If you ever try to interfere with me or cross my path again
You do so at the peril of your own life
I'm not quite as cool or forgiving as I sound
I've seen enough heartaches and strife

The moment passes, and we move back to autobiography.

My grandfather was a duck trapper
He could do it with just dragnets and ropes
My grandmother could sew new dresses out of old cloth
I don't know if they had any dreams or hopes

I had 'em once though, I suppose, to go along
With all the ring dancin' Christmas carols on all of the Christmas Eves
I left all my dreams and hopes
Buried under tobacco leaves

Perhaps that’s it then; our slightly tipsy narrator has lived his life as a tobacco farmer, running a plantation, his own “dreams and hopes left buried under tobacco leaves.”

And as I think about it, I can’t stop myself from wondering if, thirty-seven years after he condemned him in his most famous self-righteous and criminally distorted “finger pointing” protest songs, Bob Dylan is writing this song from the point of view of an older William Devereux "Billy" Zantzinger.

No matter. The first fifteen verses were just passing the time up to where, his eyes downcast, we’re told that:

It's not always easy kicking someone out
Gotta wait a while - it can be an unpleasant task
Sometimes somebody wants you to give something up
And tears or not, it's too much to ask.