Bob Dylan's "Mississippi" - an analysis by Kees de Graaf - Part 1
Bob Dylan’s “Mississippi” – an analysis by Kees de Graaf – Part 1.
Dylan composed this masterpiece during the 1997 recording sessions for the album “Time out of Mind”. Dylan decided not to include this brilliant song on “Time out of mind” and obviously he had his reasons for this decision. However, little must he have realized at the time that it was destiny that caused this song to end up on the 2001 album “Love and Theft”. “Destiny” is a word often used by Dylan in his book “Chronicles”- Volume 1. When asked in his famous 2004 60 minutes CBS television interview why his still out there on stage after so many years he replies: ‘’It goes back to that destiny thing. I mean, I made a bargain with it, you know, long time ago. And I’m holding up my end’’. When asked whom he made that bargain with he replies: “With the Chief Commander, in this earth and in a world we can’t see”. The fact is that the album “Love and Theft” was released on September the 11th 2001, the day when those two planes crashed into two twin towers and the world stood still in shock and agony. “Mississippi” exactly put into words what happened on that dreadful day to all those unfortunate who were trapped in these towers: “We’re all boxed in, nowhere to escape, trapped in the heart of it, trying to get away, and “Sky full of fire, pain pouring down”. It was as if destiny- the powers from above- had instructed Dylan to hold this prophetic song in his portfolio for more than 4 years and not release it until September the 11th 2001. So when I listened for the first time to this song on September the 11th 2001, the lyrics hit me like a thunderbolt and I was deeply touched and every word of it rang true. But not only that: musically the song has an ascending bass line which very much adds to the tension and drama of the song. All of this was reason enough to make this song one of my favourite Dylan tunes. The are many layers in the song and this makes it not an easy task to analyse the song. There is an outtake of the song which at some points has different lyrics but we will focus on the lyrics of the official release. As said it was not only ‘destiny’’ that caused this song to be released on nine-eleven 2001 but apart from that there is also – as will outline below- a lot of ‘destiny’ in the lyrics of the song itself.
The song comprises 12 verses arranged in three sets of four verses and each of those three sets ends with a conclusion, the chorus of the song: "Only one thing I did wrong, stayed in Mississippi a day too long”. The chorus has no doubt the key to come to some sort of understanding of the meaning of the song and we will discuss the chorus in depth after the fourth verse but let’s here suffice it to say that in his 2001 Rolling Stone interview Dylan said that “Mississippi” has “knifelike lyrics trying to convey majesty and heroism”. Indeed there is majesty and heroism in the lyrics of this song but we will see that this majesty and heroism shows itself not so much in- what we would usually expect- in glamour and courage but in all vulnerability and ostensible weakness and fragility which the poet expresses in this song, just like the apostle Paul once said: “for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10). We are going to find out in the analysis of this song that it is drenched in the imagery of the Biblical wisdom literature such as the Book of Job, the Psalms and the book of Ecclesiastes but also on the Pentateuch. So let’s see how we can piece all these things together and in a verse by verse analysis.
Every step of the way we walk the line
Your days are numbered, so are mine
Time is piling up, we struggle and we scrape
We’re all boxed in, nowhere to escape
First of all, when it says: “Every step of the way we walk the line” this line bears the marks of the main theme of the album “Time out of Mind” for which this song was originally composed. The main theme of “Time out of Mind” is “movement”. Movement in whatever direction so it is no surprise to begin the song with “Every step of the way”. This verse – and also other verses in this song for that matter - expresses ‘destiny’ but destiny not seen from a divine stance but destiny seen in a way as we- mortal beings- often experience destiny. We invariably experience destiny in a negative way, as some sort of fatality from which there is no escape. But we must not forget that this is not how God sees destiny. From a divine stance it is better to use the word ‘providence’. The word ‘providence’ has a positive meaning, it means that God protects, guides, and takes care of every step in our life in order to take us safely home, reassuring us so that we conclude: ”Every step of the way we walk the line”. This notion resembles what Paul says in Rom. 8:28: “We know that in everything God works for good”. But this seems by no means the feeling the poet intends to express in this verse. In this verse ”Every step of the way we walk the line” seems much more a statement of desperate resignation, everything has been predetermined and things go as they go. There is certainly a strong feeling of destiny here but at the same time there is this idea that there is nothing one can do against the destructing powers of destiny, there simply seems no escape from it. According to the English dictionary -the Wiktionary- one of the meanings of “To walk the line” is “To behave in an authorized or socially accepted manner, especially as prescribed by law or morality”. Some on the internet have argued that “Mississippi” is a socio- political song, depicting the status of American politics and social order. If this were right “To walk the line” would mean for citizens to act and behave exactly in accordance with whatever the ruling order prescribes you to do. Maybe these commentators were inclined to think into this direction because of what Dylan said in his 2001 Rolling Stone interview about “Mississippi”. Dylan, criticizing the attitude of Daniel Lanois towards the song, then said “that the song has 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”. We all know that -especially in interviews- Dylan is fond of expressing himself cryptically, making it not easy to understand what exactly he may have had in mind, but our take on it is that Dylan intended to say that just like the foundation of the American nation is solidly and legally laid down in the official laws and documents, “Mississippi” likewise has a strong foundation, based on the hard facts laid down in the Scriptures rather than on some vague etherical voodoo ideology full of superstition. We conclude that when it says ”Every step of the way we walk the line” the poet may intend to say that every step we make in life is predetermined by the powers from above, by God. In this process it looks as if human responsibility is wiped out and that the human existence is nothing more than wind, like “The wind that blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course” ( Ecclesiastes 1:6 NIV).This sense of vanity is certainly how the human existence sometimes feels but it does not necessarily mean that in reality this is the case.
When the poet goes on to say that “Your days are numbered” this does not exactly express the same idea as in Dylan’s song “Every Grain of Sand” where it says: “then onward in my journey I come to understand that every hair is numbered”. This line echoes Mat. 10:30. But the statement from Jesus in Mat. 10:30 that “all the hairs of your head are numbered” is meant reassuringly, to take away fear. But here the words “Your days are numbered” have a much more ominous character. Here, when it says: “Your days are numbered” it reminds us of “the moving finger that is moving on” (Narrow Way) and also of “The writing's on the wall, come read it, come see what it say” (“Thunder on the Mountains”). Here it is what the moving finger wrote on the plaster of the wall of king Belshazzar’s palace (Daniel 5:5): “This is what these words mean: [Mene] means 'numbered'--God has numbered the days of your (Belshazzar’s) reign and has brought it to an end” (Daniel 5:26).Belshazzar had “lifted up himself against the Lord of heaven” (Daniel 5:23) and therefore God made an end to his rule. The days of all evil doers are numbered and will come to a predetermined end, but not only for them but the days of all mortal human beings are numbered, that is why the poet includes himself and says “so are mine”. This is the first moment in the song where the lyrics as Dylan puts it“ convey majesty and heroism”. When you are a celebrity the threat of “the disease of conceit” the thought that you are “too good to die” looms large in the background and it takes heroism for the poet to acknowledge that. It may have been the reason why he added: “so are mine”.
“Time is piling up” sees time go by not in a linear, everlasting, sequence of events but time seen in a sort of vertical way, as an edifice which is gradually erected. “Time is piling up” shows much more a feeling that time is limited, the end of time is near and there a sense of urgency. In Dylan’s sugar and candy’s “Handy Dandy” we see the opposite phenomenon. Handy Dandy is a typical end time personification, a person who “got all the time in the world”. Here “time” builds up ominously and it all seems so useless, “we struggle and we scrape”, that is all we can do. Life is hard, time is nearly up and we have to fight to get to the end of it all. There is just no let-up: “We’re all boxed in, nowhere to escape”. This notion comes close to what is says in the Book of Ecclesiastes Chapter 9:12(NLT): “People can never predict when hard times might come. Like fish in a net or birds in a trap, people are caught by sudden tragedy”.
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 working’ in the town
I been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down
It is said that the first cities were formed after the so-called Neolithic Revolution (10000 BC) which brought agriculture and made denser human populations possible. We have found that the events the narrator pictures in this and the following verse (including the chorus)very much resemble the history of Lot -Abraham’s nephew – written down in the book of Genesis. Let us follow this lead and see if there is a match and decide for yourself if this idea makes sense.
When it says: “City’s just a jungle” the poet may have had the city of Sodom in mind where Lot once dwelled (Gen 19:1-3).Now Genesis13:13 and 18:20 says that Sodom was a very wicked town indeed. The “City’s just a jungle” means that the law of the jungle ruled in the city of Sodom. The fittest literally played dirty tricks on you in that city and the narrator may allude to this when he says: “more games to play”. This appears specifically when two angels visit Sodom (Gen. 19:1). These two visiting angels where sexually harassed by a violent mob (Gen 19:4-14) and had Lot, his family and the two angels, trapped in their house, and although Lot tried to escape from this jam by offering his two daughters (Gen. 19:8)to protect his two visitors, there was no escape, that is why the narrator says: “Trapped in the heart of it, trying to get away” and if the two angels had not intervened by blinding the mob so that they could not find the door of the house (Gen.18:11), Lot and his family and the two visitors surely would have been sexually assaulted and abused and subsequently killed by the hostile and furious mob.
And now it is as if Lot retrospectively says: “I was raised in the country, I been working in the town, I been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down". Lot -Abraham’s nephew Gen. 11:27- was indeed “raised in the country” when his grandfather Terah left Ur and took Abram and Lot with him and went into the land of Canaan to settle in the neighbourhood of Haran (Gen. 11:31). Later on Abram and Lot left the Haran region to roam about the countryside of Canaan (Gen 12:5) However, the two shepherds Abram and Lot separated and Lot thought he outsmarted Abram by choosing the fertile Jordan valley as his habitat (Gen.13:10) and finally ended up living in the town of Sodom (Gen 19:3) in which he got nearly killed. So when it says: “I been working in the town” Lot refers to the town of Sodom where he settled down and arranged his business. But as appears from Gen. 19:9 Lot was not a welcome guest at all in Sodom and regarded as a nuisance and the Sodomites said to Lot: “this fellow came to sojourn, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them”. It is the reason why it is as if Lot in retrospection says: “I been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down”. “to set one’s suitcase down” is a metaphor for “ever since I settled down” in this case for Lot in Sodom. From the moment Lot arrived in Sodom, Lot knew he was in trouble. The reason for this is that Lot’s lifestyle did not match the lifestyle of the Sodomites at all, to say the least of it. Although Lot made a poor decision to go and live in such a wicked town as Sodom, 2 Peter 2:7,8 nevertheless says that “God also rescued Lot out of Sodom because he was a righteous man who was sick of the shameful immorality of the wicked people around him ,Yes, Lot was a righteous man who was tormented in his soul by the wickedness he saw and heard day after day”. Therefore, for the poet to have Lot say in retrospection: “I been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down” is an accurate metaphor to describe what happened to Lot the moment he settled down in Sodom.
Verse 3 and first bridge
Got nothing for you, I had nothing before
Don’t even have anything for myself anymore
Sky full of fire, pain pouring down
Nothing you can sell me, I’ll see you around
Usually the bridge in a song is used to pause and to reflect on earlier parts of the song and to lead the listener to the climax – usually the chorus – of the song. However, in this bridge – and the following two bridges - there is also this ascending bass line which very much increases the tension and the drama in the song and serves at the same time as an indication that the following words are of the utmost importance and should not be ignored. If we follow our line of thinking in this verse, it may be again Lot who reflects here on what happened to him and what he learned from the apocalyptic destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. However, “Got nothing' for you, I had nothing before, don’t even have anything for myself anymore” may also – and maybe at the same time – a generic statement about the human condition. But let’s first find out how it may apply to Lot and see for yourself if it makes sense.
To escape the “sky full of fire” and “pain pouring down” – pain in the form of brimstone pouring down on Sodom (Gen. 19:24)-, Lot, in order to to save his life, had to leave Sodom in a hurry and fled to the town of Zoar (Gen 19:22). But Lot was afraid to live in Zoar, therefore Lot left Zoar and with his two daughters dwelt in a cave in the hills surrounding the Sodom valley (Gen 19:30). The fire and brimstone pouring down from the sky not only destroyed the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah but also the whole valley surrounding these towns (Gen.19:25) Like Abraham Lot had great possessions – flocks and herds and tents (Gen 13:6)- but lost all his possessions when fire and brimstone came from the sky and destroyed everything he owned. Therefore, “got nothing for you” literally became the naked truth when only Lot’s soul and the soul of his two daughters were saved but the rest of his family and all of his material belongings were destroyed. This was not the first time that Lot lost all of his possessions. ”I had nothing before” may refer to Genesis 14. In Gen. 14 we read that Lot and his family were captured and kidnapped by king Ched-or-laomer and his companions and they stole all the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah and all their provisions and also everything Lot owned. (Gen.14: 11,12). That is why Lot exclaims: ”I had nothing before” .
Abraham however, came to Lot’s rescue and liberated Lot and returned his family and all of his possessions (Gen 14:16). But the worst of it all was when it was as if Lot exclaimed: “don’t even have anything for myself anymore”. Bereft of everything Lot once owned and left behind with only his two daughters, they had to take refuge in a cave in the desolate hills surrounding the Sodom valley (Gen.19:30). While living in solitude in this cave, the worst thing that happened to Lot was that he had no prospect of having any posterity which in that culture was the worst thing that could happen to a man, that is why it is as if Lot cries out in despair: my life is finished and I “don’t even have anything for myself anymore”.
But as said this verse may also be a general statement about the human condition. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah may only be a minor prelude to the great apocalypse that is to come on the Latter Day. The apocalypse has always been a main theme in Dylan’s work. Dylan was to the point when in his song “God Knows” he warned: “God knows there’s gonna be no more water, but fire next time”. Water destroyed the world in the days of Noah (Genesis 7). Next time it would be fire. Fire and pain pouring down on Sodom and Gomorrah as a prelude to the fire coming down on the Latter Day as prophesied by 2 Peter 3:10. When the apocalyptic fire comes down from the sky, there is no help you can offer to other people and other people cannot help you. On the Latter Day it will be like Dylan said in his apocalyptic song: “Crash On The Levee (Down In The Flood”): “You're gonna have to find yourself another best friend, somehow”. But is clear: another friend will not be available at that Day. On that Day you will be thrown on your own resources. Therefore, on that dreadful Day, when the: “Sky is full of fire, and “pain is pouring down” you cannot help anybody – not even your next of kin- to escape doomsday: In desperation you exclaim to your next of kin: “Got nothing for you” to save you.
Since man fell into sin, the condition of man is such that one can also say: “I had nothing before” and “Don’t even have anything for myself anymore”. On that Day man is entirely delivered to the mercy of the Lord. No human offering, concept or thesis will save you on that dreadful Day and the poet is fully aware of this when he says that there is: “Nothing you can sell me, I’ll see you around”. In verse 5 the poet is going to say: “Say anything you wanna, I have heard it all”. Basically that line expresses the same thing as “there is nothing you can sell me”. It is as if the poet says “I will not buy what you say because it brings no solution to the crisis we are in, in fact no human being is capable to come up with any solution to avoid apocalyptic destruction, it is going to happen anyway and soon you gonna find out, ”I’ll see you around” means that I will see you again soon and then you will acknowledge that I was right”.
Verse 4 and chorus.
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
When it says “All my powers of expression and thoughts so sublime” these words may be autobiographically interpreted and quite rightly so. Dylan wrote about “his powers of expression and thoughts so sublime” in his song “In the Summertime”:“ I’m still carrying the gift you gave, it’s a part of me now, it’s been cherished and saved, It’ll be with me unto the grave, and then unto eternity”. His huge poetical “powers of expression and thoughts so sublime” must be seen as a special gift from God to be used within the framework of “destiny”, the “destiny thing” he elaborated on in his 2004 CBS 60 minutes interview. In this interview Dylan also said that the early songs he wrote (like “It’s all right Ma”) where almost magically written, admitting at the same time that nowadays (2004) he cannot write songs like that anymore but added: “I can do other things now”. One of the “other things” he certainly can do is write a brilliant song like “Mississippi” in which all his “powers of expression” and “thoughts so sublime” shine brilliantly. But no matter how graceful this special gift the poet has received may be, the poet wants to make it very clear that this gift pales into insignificance beside the One who gave this gift to him. The poet’s sublime words and thoughts come, as Dylan also said in his 2004 CBS interview, ”right out of that wellspring of creativity”. If this creative process, these words and thoughts, -his “powers of expression and thoughts so sublime”- are already so beautiful, how beautiful and beyond words must not be the Creator of all of this, the One who made this creative process possible, which cannot be anybody else but God? In other words, no matter how great his “powers of expression and thoughts so sublime” are ,these powers and thoughts will never be able to describe God’s greatness and sublimity adequately. Words and thoughts, no matter how powerful and sublime, will always fall short and “could never do you justice in reason or rhyme”. Within the context it seems obvious that this “you” is God. Human thought, reason and human rhyme can never do justice to God, and is unable to penetrate the depts of God’s wisdom, power and compassion A few examples from the Scriptures to back up this thought:
Job 37:23,24 (KJV): “Touching the Almighty, we cannot find him out: he is excellent in power, and in judgment, and in plenty of justice: he will not afflict. Men do therefore fear him: he respecteth not any that are wise of heart".
Ecclesiastes 8:17 (NLT): “I realized that no one can discover everything God is doing under the sun. Not even the wisest people discover everything, no matter what they claim”.
Romans 11:33-36 (KJV): “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor? Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again? For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen”.
It is said that the chorus “Only one thing I did wrong, stayed in Mississippi a day too long” echoes an old blues song which Alan Lomax recorded in the Mississippi Parchman Farm prison in 1947- 1948. The prisoners used to sing 'Only thing I did wrong was stayed in Mississippi a day too long'. No doubt that in the chorus of the song we may find an important clue to grasp the comprehensive meaning of the song. Some have argued on the internet that the song – and especially the chorus- is about the death of Dylan’s friend Jeff Buckley. On may 29th 1997 Jeff Buckley went swimming in Wolf River Harbour, which is a slack water channel of the Mississippi river, and was drowned. The interpretation is that Buckley made a fatal mistake and if he had not been in Mississippi on that particular date, he would have stayed alive but Buckley “stayed in Mississippi a day too long” and lost his life.
Others argue that he song may have something to do with the story of the great Mississippi Flood of 1927 which caused death and widespread destruction throughout the lower Mississippi Valley. If at the time in 1927, one was not evacuated in time from the Mississippi Valley, and became trapped in the rising waters, one could say of oneself that the “Only one thing I did wrong, stayed in Mississippi a day too long”.
However, as far as Dylan is concerned, things are never what they seem.Therefore,we feel that we should not focus too much on what the use of the word “Mississippi” may mean in this chorus. ”Mississippi” should not be taken too literal but may be just a metaphor to lead you to deeper waters. This seems a common phenomenon in Dylan’s work, e.g. “Roll on John” looks like as if it is about John Lennon, but closer examination will learn you that the focus point is actually somebody else, another “John” namely John the Apostle of light.(For more details on this, see my analysis of this song elsewhere on this website).
We feel that the main thought expressed here is: if you stay somewhere too long, the consequences will be devastating. When you stand at the cross- roads, when fire and pain is about to pour down from the sky, you have to make a choice: either flee while you still can or otherwise you will have to brace yourself for elimination. When it says “Only one thing I did wrong” it seems obvious that the “thing” done “wrong” is a life changing event. When this thing was done wrong life will never be the same again. The classic example of this idea is, when the devil in the shape of a serpent approached Eve in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3), Eve did not flee from him as she should have, but stayed on, making it possible for the serpent to seduce her. She stayed on for too long a time and man fell into sin. And indeed, If there is one event in history which changed everything and of which one truly may say that this is “the only thing (man) did wrong” it is this catastrophic decision in the garden of Eden. However, if you resist the devil, the opposite will happen and the devil will flee from you (James 4:7). Joseph in Gen. 39 did the right thing and fled. When Joseph was seduced by Potiphar’s wife (Gen.39:7-23) Joseph did not stay on but fled, leaving his garment in her hand and got out of the house (Gen. 39:12). When the “Sky was full of fire and pain pouring down” on Sodom (Gen. 19:24), Lot reluctantly fled from Sodom and was saved but Lot’s wife spiritually stayed on in Sodom, looked back and turned into a salt pillar (Gen. 19:26).In a way one could say that in her mind Lot’s wife “stayed in Mississippi(Sodom) a day too long”. Jesus prophesizing the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70: “let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let no one on the housetop go down to take anything out of the house. Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak (Mat. 24:16-18 NIV). In other words: don’t stay a day too long, otherwise you will be eliminated. These are indeed knifelike lyrics, just as Dylan said.
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