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.


Peter said...

Thanks for turning the spotlight to this Dylan song, one I have somehow ignored until now. That line "You can always come back, but you can't come back all the way" is just a killer. One among many to be found here.

Stan Denski said...

The whole record seems to play out in the tension created by that line, and the line "She said 'You can't repeat the past', Who says you can't? Of course you can."