Bob Dylan's "Mississippi" - an analysis by Kees de Graaf - Part 2
Bob Dylan’s “Mississippi” – an analysis by Kees de Graaf – Part 2.
Well, the devil’s in the alley, mule’s in the stall
Say anything you wanna, I have heard it all
I was thinking about the things that Rosie said
I was dreaming I was sleeping' in Rosie’s bed
This verse very much breathes the atmosphere of imprisonment. Imprisonment and hard labour because of some irreversible act of felony committed in the past. It is the same atmosphere which we already found in the chorus “Only one thing I did wrong, stayed in Mississippi a day too long”. This chorus seems to echo an old blues song from Alan Lomax recorded in the Parchman Farm Prison in 1947-1948. There seems to be a CD from these sessions called 'Prison Blues Of The South.' In the liner notes of the accompanying booklet, you read the words 'Only thing I did wrong was stayed in Mississippi a day too long' . Apparently, this is what the prisoners in the Mississippi Parchman Farm prison used to sing during hard labour. On that occasion Lomax also recorded a prison song called “Rosie” which is featured in this verse. Alan Lomax said that: "These songs belong to the musical tradition which Africans brought to the New World, but they are also as American as the Mississippi River … They tell us the story of the slave gang, the sharecropper system, the lawless work camp, the chain gang, the pen.". On the one hand, when you consider the harsh circumstances the prisoners were in and the lawlessness in the Mississippi Parchman Farm Prison camp, one is easily inclined to say that in this prison camp: “the devil’s in the alley”. The devil is always nearby in these prison labour camps; it looks as if the devil has it all his way, having no other purpose in the end but to chain these prisoners for ever and bereave them of all hope. On the other hand,- as so often in Dylan’s oeuvre - the words “the devil’s in the alley” may also have an apocalyptic sub-meaning. If so, it reminds us of a Dylan line which would later show up in his song “Thunder on the Mountains”. It says: “There is a ruckus in the alley and the sun (or Son) will be here soon”. This ruckus – in the alley - is at its most intense when the Latter Day is about to break through and the sudden arrival of the Son of Man on the clouds will make an end to this ruckus (Rev. 1:7).
When it says: “mule’s in the stall”, one should not forget that not only stubbornness is usually associated with mules, but also hardworking. “Mule’s – kicking – in the stall” not only has a rural connotation but also a connotation of those hard labouring prisoners in this Mississippi Parchman Farm prison, who during hard labour, just to distract their minds, chant those prison songs which Alan Lomax recorded.
When the poet goes on to say: “Say anything you wanna, I have heard it all” these words may again have a double meaning. First, it may apply to those inmates in the Parchman Farm Prison. When you have been an inmate in this prison – or any other prison for that matter - for a long time and you see the same inmates over and over again, during a long period of time, there are few new things you can tell one another; you have heard all the personal stories and you may conclude: “Say anything you wanna, I have heard it all”. Secondly, when you stick by an apocalyptic interpretation the words “Say anything you wanna, I have heard it all” have some sort of destiny and acquiescence in them. Destiny and resignation in the sense that there is no clever human thesis available in this world which could change the course of things and prevent doomsday from coming. The words also show weariness, just like it is said in the book of Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new under the sun and things go as they have been predetermined.
Some have argued that “Rosie” the words “I was thinking about the things that Rosie said, I was dreaming I was sleeping' in Rosie’s bed” refers to the ideal woman in the same as e.g. in France Marianne is a symbol for the Republic. If that were correct “Rosie” would be a symbol of love and not an actual woman. However, we feel it is more likely that “Rosie” is a reflection on the prison song “Rosie” which -as said above- Lomax recorded in the Mississippi Parchman Farm Prison in 1947-1948. The lyrics of “Rosie” go like : “Be my woman gal, I'll be your man. Every day’s Sunday dollar in your hand, In your hand lordy, in your hand. Everyday ‘s Sunday dollar in your hand. Stick to the promise girl that You made me. Won't got married til' uh I go free I go free lordy, I go free, won't got married til' uh I go free”. These words fit like a glove within the atmosphere of this verse which speaks of imprisonment. Even under the harsh circumstance of hard labour the longing and hope for a better future keeps these inmates going. Dreams about a promise a girl once made to them remain: “I was thinking about the things that Rosie said” and also hope for a happy matrimony in the future: “I was dreaming I was sleeping' in Rosie’s bed”, no matter how hopeless and idle these dreams usually prove to be.
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
This verse expatiates on the previous verse and also deals with the mental state of a prisoner. The thought seems not far away that, because we all sinned, we are all in a way prisoners. To live a life of sin and crime creates isolation -literally and figuratively - and is a lifestyle one should try to avoid, just like Dylan wrote in his song “Working Man Blues #2”: “I don't want to be forced Into a life of continual crime”. “Walking through the leaves, falling from the trees, feeling like a stranger nobody sees” expresses isolation and loneliness. Locked up in a prison camp, often bereft of all your next of kin, you feel quite alone. Walking amidst the dead leaves, falling from the trees, intensifies the feeling that your situation is hopeless and that you might as well be dead just like those leaves. Nobody cares for you and nobody looks after you, you have nobody left on this planet who is interested in you and cares what will happen to you, nobody knows you and nobody will miss you, you are “feeling like a stranger nobody sees”. In a prison camp there is plenty of time to think about the past. “So many things that we never will undo” means that you can’t turn back the clock, you can’t unring the bell, the sins you have done and the crimes you have committed are irreversible and they keep on haunting you. Often at this point of contemplation regret and remorse come stepping in: “I know you’re sorry, I’m sorry too”. “Love is all there is” Dylan once wrote in his song “I threw it all away” and love is all that really matters but at the same time love and passion are so delicate and vulnerable, that once there is a falling out, there is guilt and regret on both sides: “I know you’re sorry, I’m sorry too”. A falling out may easily lead to a “crime ‘passionel’ and you may end up in prison and – just like the Prodigal son once did in Luke 15:17- you may “come to yourself” and say “I know you’re sorry, I’m sorry too”.
Verse 7 and second bridge.
Some people will offer you their hand and some won’t
Last night I knew you, tonight I don’t
I need something strong to distract my mind
I’m gonna look at you ’til my eyes go blind
Just like in the first bridge, there is this ascending bass line in this verse which – as said above - very much increases the tension and the drama in the song and takes the song to a higher and more spiritual level. These words in this verse go beyond the words spoken by a prisoner in a prison camp in Mississippi. It is as if the camera zooms out from the prisoner in the Mississippi prison camp and now focusses on what goes on at a higher, ethereal, level. This higher level has to do with something we would like to call eternal separation. It seems that Dylan is grasped by this idea of eternal separation and it is a phenomenon we quite often see in Dylan’s works. By eternal separation, we mean eternal and absolute separation between good and evil; separation and distance between those who chose to be redeemed and those who chose to reject redemption. A separation which has its beginning on this earth and will be carried on eternally into a future world, a world – as Dylan puts it –“you can’t see”. This idea is worked out in two parables from Jesus which shimmer through in this verse. “Some people will offer you their hand and some won’t” reminds us of the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37).The first parable tells us that a man on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho was attacked by robbers who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. What you expected the least happened: an outlawed and despicable Samaritan and an unknown innkeeper took care of the man and they offered him their hand by dressing up the man’s wounds and paying for his lodgings in the inn. However, those people who were expected to come to the rescue of the man, the priest and the Levite, passed by and left the man to die. “Some people who will offer you’re their hand” are the Good Samaritan and the innkeeper, “some who won’t” are the priest and the Levite. This attitude, an unwillingness to offer your hand, may have some nasty consequences, we see this alluded to when it says: ”Last night I knew you, tonight I don’t” . We see that in the second parable, called the parable of “the five wise and the five foolish maidens” which we find in Mat. 25:1-13. The five foolish maidens negligently took not enough oil with them to keep their lamps burning and to welcome the arrival of the bridegroom. When these maidens subsequently went out to buy some additional oil, the bridegroom had arrived in the meantime, but then the five foolish maidens were too late for the wedding and the door to the wedding feast was shut. When these maidens said to the Lord- the bridegroom-: “Lord, Lord, open to us” (Mat. 25:11), the Lord refused the five foolish maidens entry to the wedding feast and said: “Truly I say to you, I do not know you”(Mat. 25:12).We find the same picture of a closed door and a householder who refuses entry for those knocking at the door, saying that he does not know them in Luke 13:25-27. It is as if the Lord Jesus now says to the maidens: “Of course, it is not that I do not know who you are because even last night we ate and we drank in the street (Luke 13:26), therefore “Last night I knew you” but tonight, now that the wedding feast has begun and the door is closed, I do not know where you come from, (Luke 13:27) I only know people in a special way, I only know those people who have rejoiced in my arrival and have taken precautions, these people I welcome to my wedding but you, you disrespected me, you were negligent, therefore I do not know you any more, therefore to you I say: “Last night I knew you, tonight I don’t”. This whole concept of eternal separation which is expressed here has such an overwhelming impact on the mind of the poet and fills him with so much awe and fear for this long and narrow way (Luke 13:24)that he feels he needs help from above and cries out: “I need something strong to distract my mind”. “To distract” may mean here that he wants draw attention away from what he is doing and focus on what is of the utmost importance to hang on. To do that he “needs something strong”. One is easily inclined to assume that “something strong” means some drug or substance but that is not self-evident. We rather feel that by “something strong” help from above is meant, a strong and helping hand, as Dylan wrote elsewhere: “Nothing can heal me now, but your touch”. Spiritually he does not want to belong to the five foolish maidens of Mat. 25 to whom is said: “Last night I knew you, tonight I don’t”. Remember that this song was originally composed for the album “Time out of Mind”, on which the theme of eternal separation is also very much present, especially in a song like “Trying to get to Heaven”. The chorus of this song is equally based on the parable of the five wise and foolish maidens when it says: “I’m trying to get to heaven before they close the door”. The “closed door” is the same door which the five foolish maidens found closed (Mat 25:10). The poet does not want to be refused entry into heaven and wants to stay focussed, and therefore he not only “needs something strong to distract his mind” but he also needs to keep his eyes fixed upon the promised land: “I’m gonna look at you ’til my eyes go blind”. Of course it is possible to interpret “I’m gonna look at you ’til my eyes go blind” -as many have done on the internet -as simply directed to some woman he frantically loves or fancies but we have to bear in mind that there are always these deeper spiritual layers in Dylan’s work. In fact, the difference between a romantic “down to earth” interpretation of “I’m gonna look at you ’til my eyes go blind” and a more spiritual interpretation of these words, is based upon the fact whether you feel that Dylan was serious or not, when, in his 2003 CBS interview, he said that it all “ goes back to the destiny thing”. “I’m gonna look at you ’til my eyes go blind” has to do with concentration. The poet does not want to be like Desolation Row’s Ophelia, who, although she had “her eyes fixed upon Noah’s great rainbow” it was of no avail to her. Here we see the same tenacity and perseverance as in Acts 3:4, when Peter and John directed their gaze at the lame man and said “Look at us” which led to the healing of the lame man. Only those survived the lethal bite of the serpent who had their eyes fixed upon the bronze serpent which Moses set on a pole (Numbers 21:9). Only if the poet sticks to his destiny and keeps his eyes fixed upon the promised land, only a concentration even “till his eyes go blind”, will enable him to pass the Narrow Way that ultimately leads to the promised land.
When it says“ Well, I got here following the southern star” it seems obvious that this Southern star is not followed with the same evil intentions king Herod once had in Mat. 2, when he tried to follow another star “the same one them three men followed from the East” ( see Dylan’s “Man of Peace”). Herod followed the star in order to track down the whereabouts of the new born child Jesus with the only purpose of killing the child (Mat.2:16).
The words“ Well, I got here following the southern star” seem much more reassuring. The poet is still on his way in southern direction, just as he wrote in “Trying to get to Heaven”: “I’m going down the river, down to New Orleans”. He follows the southern star which he can see in the sky going down the Mississippi river, till he finally reaches New Orleans in Louisiana. ”Following the southern star” also indicates that he has a mission to fulfil. This mission is to cross that river and “to be where you are”.
The words “to be where you are” represent the equivalent of what Dylan once said in his 2004 CBS interview. Dylan said he made a bargain with “destiny” and when asked: “What was your bargain?”, he said ”to get where I am”. “To be where you are” is the equivalent of “to get where I am”. Again it is possible to simply interpret “to be where you are” as addressed to some woman but – as so often in Dylan’s work- there may be a deeper layer. Therefore, when it says “to be where you are”, we cannot help thinking of the people of Israel miraculously crossing the river Jordan (Joshua 3) and entering the Promised Land, the land of God, the land where God wants them to be and the land where God is near (Joshua 3:7). Although the words ”to be where you are” fulfil a passionate longing to be near God in that Promised Land, there is at the same time also something preliminary in these words; he has not reached his final destination yet, the poet is still on his way, he is “trying to get to heaven”. As long as he is on his way, there still is this tragic and dark shadow of sin expressed in the chorus: “Only one thing I did wrong, stayed in Mississippi a day too long”. For more details on the analysis of the chorus we refer to part one of this series. Please feel free to comment on this article. To do so please press the button 'reacties' below.