Written by Bill Halley, Jimmie Rodgers recorded the song “Miss the Mississippi” a year before his death in 1933:
The song must have had some relevance for the so-called Father of Country Music as he was born and raised in Mississippi before setting off for a life on the road. The song is sentimental as the narrator yearns for his home state from far away:
I am sad and weary far away from home
Miss the Mississippi and you, dear
Days are dark and dreary and everywhere I roam
Miss the Mississippi and you.
Roaming the wide world over
Always alone and blue, blue
Nothing seems to cheer me under heaven’s dome
Miss the Mississippi and you.
In June 1992, Bob Dylan entered the studio with musician David Bromberg and recorded a mix of traditional songs, a few of Bromberg’s compositions, and cover tunes. One of the songs was “Miss the Mississippi”:
None of the songs that Dylan recorded with Bromberg were released at the time. They were set aside seemingly in favor of the solo acoustic performances of traditional songs that Dylan would record later in the year and released as Good as I Been to You. In 2008, Dylan would release his recording of “Miss the Mississippi” on The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs: Rare and Unreleased 1989–2006. There must have been something that Dylan found attractive about the song, perhaps the double use of “miss” in the title phrase. The song may have inspired him to write his own ode to the Magnolia State. One clue is that there were three different versions of Dylan’s “Mississippi” on Tell Tale Signs alongside “Miss the Mississippi.” While both songs are contemplating Mississippi, Dylan takes a different angle than Jimmie Rodgers’s nostalgic longing.
To compare, Rodgers sings the following:
I’m growing tired of the big city lights
Tired of the glamor and tired of the sights
In all my dreams I am roaming once more
Back to my home on that old river shore.
Dylan shares similar feelings about the big city with Rodgers as he sings in his own “Mississippi”:
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.
But that is where the parallels end as Dylan finishes that line with: “I been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down.” What kind of trouble? Dylan is only getting started:
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.
The helplessness that Dylan’s narrator feels is palpable and there’s an emptiness as well; the word “nothing” is repeated three times in those lines. There’s even a touch of the apocalypse as “sky full of fire” may refer to lightning, but it has a more ominous connotation especially paired with the idea that there is “pain pourin’ down.” But what is the cause of this pain? “All my powers of expression and thoughts so sublime / Could never do you justice in reason or rhyme.” These lines reflect the eternal cry of the artist: the inability to truly capture the essence of a beloved. In this case, the narrator — or Dylan — is willing to acknowledge his gifts as an artist, but it isn’t enough. Despite this admittance of weakness, there’s a larger theme to the song as seen with the lines that ends this verse as with all of the verses in “Mississippi”:
Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long.
These are words of regret on the part of the narrator. Dylan inverts Jimmie Rodgers’s yearning for Mississippi to something different, acknowledging one mistake, lingering when he should have gotten out. The tone of the narrator in “Mississippi” is not dissimilar to Gene Hackman’s main character in Wes Anderson’s 2001 film The Royal Tenenbaums. A man looking back on his life with regret, knowing that he has been a scoundrel many times over, and trying, in his own way, to acknowledge his mistakes. In the second verse, the narrator tries to explain how he got to that particular juncture with a series of remarkable phrasings on Dylan’s part. One example are these lines:
I was thinkin’ about the things that Rosie said
I was dreaming I was sleeping in Rosie’s bed.
For some songwriters, an entire song could be written based on this conceit; for Dylan, it’s simply one part of a larger application, building the case for the regret on the part of the narrator. More evidence for this case is the simple statement: “Last night I knew you, tonight I don’t.” Again, this could be the focus of an entire song. In fact, it was for Dylan previously: “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met).” At this point, Dylan’s economy with words is such that he needs only eight words to indicate a feeling in which he previously needed an entire song.
As noted above, the narrator wanted to flee the city like Jimmie Rodgers, but there was a larger purpose to his escape:
Well I got here following the southern star
I crossed that river just to be where you are.
The impulses at the beginning of this song were pure and romantic. Still, the regret remains as those lines are immediately followed by: “Only one thing I did wrong / Stayed in Mississippi a day too long.” The regret exhibited in “Mississippi” is curious because it is coupled with another feeling: resilience. In the last verse, the narrator’s resolute nature is worn as a badge of honor. The more times one listens to the song, the resilience offered up by the narrator starts to sound as if Dylan is talking about his own art. He sings:
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.
This sounds like Dylan reveling in his place in the music community, even at a later stage in his life (a ship “sinking fast”). The “poison” of criticism won’t affect him as he is “light” and “free.” And “I’ve got nothin’ but affection for all those who’ve sailed with me” sounds like the sweetest acknowledgement that Dylan has ever offered up to his fans. This sentiment continues as Dylan sings:
Stick with me baby, stick with me anyhow
Things should start to get interesting right about now.
This wonderful assurance on the narrator’s part once again works as a message to Dylan’s audience. Dylan’s reading of these words must include a smile on his face. There’s a slyness and a playfulness as he is saying, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” The resolve of Dylan’s stance also gives him a confidence to work in these flairs of whimsical mischievousness. Dylan’s determination is tempered somewhat with the last lines of the song:
Well, the emptiness is endless, cold as the clay
You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way.
Such a provocative line! At first, it sounds as if it’s a cliché, but it can’t be. It’s an immediate tagline for a movie. Print up the t-shirts and the bumper stickers! It’s sung by Dylan with an air of someone who knows the impact of these words only too well. Whether it is a loved one, a family member, even a career move, a comeback can never be truly complete or as pure as the original. This line is immediately followed by “Only one thing I did wrong / Stayed in Mississippi a day too long.” There’s the regret again and this time it’s connected with the conviction of “you can’t come back all the way.” It’s lovely writing by Dylan. The viewpoint is strong; we know the feelings behind these words, yet there’s plenty of space for the listener to project their own situations into the words. This is a songwriter at the peak of his powers.
In addition to the writing, Dylan sounds self-assured singing throughout “Love and Theft”, the album on which “Mississippi” appears. As discussed previously on Recliner Notes, “Love and Theft” marks the time that Dylan starts to produce his own music by himself without assistance from an outside producer. The sometimes strained relationship with producer Daniel Lanois while recording Time Out of Mind, the album that immediately preceded “Love and Theft”, was the final instigation for Dylan to produce his own music. It appears as if Lanois’s handling of the song “Mississippi” may have been the breaking point for Dylan. In a press conference in Rome on July 23, 2001 just before the release of “Love and Theft”, Dylan said:
“We had [‘Mississippi’] on the Time Out Of Mind album. It wasn’t recorded very well but thank God, it never got out, so we recorded it again. But something like that would never have happened ten years ago. You’d have probably all heard the lousy version of it and I’d have never re-recorded it. I’m glad for once to have had the opportunity to do so.”
As said earlier in this post, Dylan recorded “Mississippi” a number of different ways during the recording of Time Out of Mind and three different versions of the song appear on the Tell Tale Signs release. With the self-assured cut of “Mississippi” in hand for “Love and Theft”, Dylan looked back on first attempts to record the song with Lanois during an interview with David Fricke of Rolling Stone on September 27, 2001:
“If you had heard the original recording, you’d see in a second. The song was pretty much laid out intact melodically, lyrically, and structurally, but Lanois didn’t see it. Thought it was pedestrian. Took it down the Afro-polyrhythm route-multi-rhythm drumming, that sort of thing. Polyrhythm has its place, but it doesn’t work for knifelike lyrics trying to convey majesty and heroism. Maybe we had worked too hard on other things, I can’t remember. But Lanois can get passionate about what he feels to be true. He’s not above smashing guitars. I never cared about that unless it was one of mine. Things got contentious once in the parking lot. He tried to convince me that the song had to be ‘sexy, sexy and more sexy.’ I know about sexy, too. He reminded me of Sam Phillips, who had once said the same thing to John Prine about a song, but the circumstances were not similar. I tried to explain that the song had more to do with the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights than witch doctors, and just couldn’t be thought of as some kind of ideological voodoo thing. But he had his own way of looking at things, and in the end I had to reject this because I thought too highly of the expressive meaning behind the lyrics to bury them in some steamy cauldron of drum theory. On the performance you’re hearing [on “Love and Theft”], the bass is playing a triplet beat, and that adds up to all the multi-rhythm you need, even in a slow-tempo song. I think Lanois is an excellent producer, though.”
So much to love in this quotation! Afro-polyrhythm! “Knifelike lyrics trying to convey majesty and heroism”! Lanois smashing guitars! “Missississippi” is about the “Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights”?!? Dylan characterizing Lanois’s work as “ideological voodoo thing” and then adding that he’s “an excellent producer, though” as an afterthought. Not so much passive aggressive as simply aggressive! Dylan is not holding back. Out of everything that Dylan has ever said during the countless interviews over the course of his career, this whole statement should be inducted into the Soundbite Hall of Fame. Let’s start that institution right now with this quotation and build the museum in Daniel Lanois’s backyard.
Knowing Dylan’s — ahem — strong feelings towards the treatment of “Mississippi” by Lanois, let’s look at the recordings. The first version appears to be a demo. (There does not appear to be a video available for the demo; please see Spotify playlist below and play track #2; songlength 6:03). It sounds as though Dylan is playing this on acoustic guitar with Lanois on electric guitar as his only accompaniment. Dylan plays a nifty little riff throughout, though it’s missing the ascending chord structure from the later versions. This is a very bluesy angle on the song and quite evocative, sounding as if it is being played on a porch in Mississippi with the actual river alongside. It’s a fantastic take. If heard in isolation without ever hearing the other versions, one would be safe in asking, “Why didn’t this get released?” Dylan has said previously that he wanted a different sound for Time Out of Mind; an expansive, almost orchestral sound.
Next up, the second version of “Mississippi” recorded for Time Out of Mind and released on Tell Tale Signs:
Dylan’s voice at the beginning of this take is low, whispery at times and growling at others. He sounds like a coiled snake, hissing out the words. The ascending chord structure appears as it will on the later “Love and Theft” version. This certainly has the full sound that Dylan wanted for Time Out of Mind with the large number instruments contending for space, trying to be heard among so many other instrumental voices. One sound that stands out is Augie Meyers and his “magic Vox” who is at the forefront when the ascending chord structure starts. (See the Recliner Notes post on “Love Sick” for more on this “magic Vox” sound.) Could this take have been released? Of course!
Lastly, this is the third and final version of “Mississippi” from Tell Tale Signs that was recorded during the Time Out of Mind sessions:
This recording seems to split the difference between the second take and the original demo. The nifty little slide riff is replicated here on an electric guitar and keyboard. The ascending chord structure is in place. Dylan is in fine voice, singing his heart out in a higher register and treating the words with care. While it has the expansive orchestral Time Out of Mind sound, Lanois’s guitar is prominent during the instrumental breaks. There’s a lyric change in the last verse:
Winter goes into summer
Summer goes into fall
I look into the mirror
Don’t see anything at all.
Dylan admits he’s a vampire! What a startling confession! That accounts for his success and long-lasting career. Let’s start a Kickster campaign for Dylan to allow for a What We Do in the Shadows style mockumentary of his life story as a vampire.
Could this version have been released? Of course! But there are a few reasons why Dylan rejected it. First, he might have been uncomfortable with the conspicuousness of Lanois’s guitar part in this take. Secondly, it has a similar sound to another song on Time Out of Mind, “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven”:
This is a terrific song. But comparing it to the third version of “Mississippi,” Dylan’s vocal phrasing and pitch along with the instrumentation are so similar that it makes it hard to release both songs on the same album.
Let’s go back to Dylan’s amazing response as to why he didn’t like Lanois’s approach on the different version of “Mississippi” and look closely at the words he used. He said: “Took it down the Afro-polyrhythm route-multi-rhythm drumming, that sort of thing.” According to Wikipedia, polyrhythm is “the simultaneous use of two or more rhythms that are not readily perceived as deriving from one another, or as simple manifestations of the same meter.” Dylan goes even further calling it “Afro-polyrhythm.” David Peñalosa, in his book The Clave Matrix; Afro-Cuban Rhythm: Its Principles and African Origins, writes:
“In traditional European (“Western”) rhythms, the most fundamental parts typically emphasize the primary beats. By contrast, in rhythms of sub-Saharan African origin, the most fundamental parts typically emphasize the secondary beats. This often causes the uninitiated ear to misinterpret the secondary beats as the primary beats, and to hear the true primary beats as cross-beats. In other words, the musical ‘background’ and ‘foreground’ may mistakenly be heard and felt in reverse.”
One example of polyrhythm is “Afro Blue” by John Coltrane off of the album Live at Birdland:
As explained on Wikipedia, Coltrane’s masterful drummer Elvin Jones “superimposes two cross-beats” over the original waltz time of the song creating a polyrhythm. Another example of polyrhythm is Talking Heads’ song “The Great Curve” off of the absolute classic album Remain in Light:
Talking Heads leader David Byrne and Remain in Light producer Brian Eno were enamored with African music of the 1970s and were consciously attempting to capture the polyrhythmic techniques in those recordings while creating something new through editing loops as in early hip-hop. Remain in Light is a story for another day, but “The Great Curve” is a perfect example of Peñalosa’s statement of the emphasis of the secondary beats over the primary beats. There are so many cross-rhythms in place on “The Great Curve” resulting in a dizzying and ecstatic mindframe for the listener.
Hearing these examples of polyrhythm, it’s hard to hear Dylan’s contentions of “Afro-polyrhythm route-multi-rhythm drumming” in the Time Out of Mind versions of “Mississippi.” His other description of these versions later in the statement — “ideological voodoo thing” — comes much closer. Dylan’s dissatisfaction is beyond evident, and he has the last word for what is released. It’s his song. It’s his name on the album cover. Fortunately, he decided to re-record the song for “Love and Theft”, resulting in the definitive version of “Mississippi.” That recording truly reveals the “knifelike lyrics” conveying the strong sense of resilience, or, in Dylan’s words, a feeling of “majesty and heroism.”
Image: J.H. Colton & Co, and G. Woolworth Colton. Mississippi. New York: J.H. Colton & Co, 1855. Map. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/item/2012586806/.