Mississippi: the meaning of Dylan’s music and lyrics and two live versions

By Tony Attwood

Updated October 2018, with the addition of two live performances – one from Dylan and the best reinterpretation I have ever heard of this, one of my all time favourite Dylan songs.   They are added at the end.

Rolling Stone called “Mississippi” “A drifter’s love song that seems to sum up Dylan’s entire career,” and before I came back to what was the first song I reviewed in this series, thinking I ought to re-write it, I was thinking of the Drifter’s Escape, and how our societies have evolved over time.

Just to re-iterate what I guess we all know, Mississippi was due out on Time out of Mind but ultimately came out on Love and Theft because Dylan was unhappy with the way it was sounding on Time out of Mind.  But for this review though I’ve been particularly listening to the opening track of “Tell tale signs” – although that’s not affected my choice of live versions.

The chorus line of Mississippi, comes from, of all places, a prison song from Parchman, and that’s the clue to where we are with this song.  Indeed knowing this transforms our feeling about the song.  And when we recall that Dylan once said that the song had to do with “Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights” then we get a real insight as to where he was.   The prisoners would sing “Only thing I did wrong was stayed in Mississippi a day too long”.  Dylan is now saying, that is what America did wrong.

And if we are not yet convinced “all boxed in nowhere to escape” is the most obvious clue.   This is the story of the world gone wrong.

Plus we have Rosie, a name that was often used as a generalised name of the ideal woman, just as in France there is Marianne, the symbol of the Republic.  Dylan is singing of the idealised world versus the real world.  (Interestingly Dylan did once clarify this in an interview, when speaking of mortality, and said that the song dealt with mortality in general – meaning that Rosie is the symbol of love, not an actual woman).

In short this is a review of what has gone wrong with America, and what could have gone right, and for this expression the ssimple two guitar production is utterly perfect.

But at the same time this is a love song: the love of the world, the regret at what went wrong.   “So many things we never will undo,” – yes that is just how life is.

Indeed what makes this a love song at the same time as a commentary on the state of the nation is the sympathy with which the words are sung to this, the original melody. “So many things we never will undo” is sympathetic, while “Last night I knew you tonight I don’t” has a melody and chord sequence in the Tell Tale Signs version that simply vanishes in other versions.  The world moves own.  The singer is majestic, the singer is a hero, the singer is sad and regretful.  The singer is the Drifter.  But he is still the one man – the singer.

This is quite possibly one of Dylan’s greatest political songs, and it achieves this while sounding like a love song. “Got no future got no past” is now far more than just a throw away line, because the song is no longer about the singer, but about the society that has gone wrong as symbolised by woman and/or the left behind.

Some lines like “Stick with me baby” becomes much more meaningful in terms of the relationship but can still be about the state of the nation, if the nation can be addressed as “baby”. When Dylan sings, “Don’t even have anything for myself any more,” he is seemingly both making a statement about his economic or political or surrealistic or modernist self, and is also talking about a life lost. About the simple need to get away.

For me it is the lack of a full accompaniment that makes this work – it is the man singing to the woman or perhaps women that he has lost, and the old Drifter in Drifter’s Escape sitting by himself singing to the nation that could construct the sort of legal system that would have imprisoned him had it not been for the hand of fate.   “Could never do you justice in reason or rhyme” becomes a powerful line, not a throwaway (as on the Time out of mind version) because the singer can never encapsulate speaking about the state of the country nor about the woman he has loved.

If you still need convincing just listen to the delivery of “I have heard it all” with its extra quaver on “heard”.

“Some people will offer you their hand and some won’t” can be an aggressive line as in the delivery on the album version, but now it is sad, because the singer knows the country is totally messed up.  We ought to be kind and gentle with each other but that simply is not how it is any more.  So for the moment the singer is now gentle, sorry, thankful for the good times, sad about what went wrong – and that of course utterly fits with the accompaniment.

It’s all over (no future no past) but he’s still here and there is still hope. “I know that fortune is waiting to be kind, so give me your hand and say you’ll be mine” despite everything. A simple life is offered at the end.

Yes, the best ever Dylan love song, and one of the greatest ever Dylan political commentaries, and one of his greatest personal commentaries and the one thing still remaining in my mind is why this beautiful, rough but loving version took so long to be released.  But that’s how it goes.

Dylan is not a man who can tell us what to do, he is not a man who wants to tell us what to do.  He is just a painter of words and music making observations. “Got nothin’ for you, I had nothin’ before,” he says, and indeed like the Drifter he’s moving out, “Don’t even have anything for myself anymore.”  He’s even removed from economic activity which is of course the very heart of what the USA is: “Nothing you can sell me, I’ll see you around.”

And despite all his ability there is nothing he can say or do to sort all this out.  He can’t even describe the world, (“All my powers of expression and thoughts so sublime, Could never do you justice in reason or rhyme”) so like the prisoners of old all he can do is reiterate the lines, “Only one thing I did wrong, Stayed in Mississippi a day too long”.

But still, remember one thing.  It isn’t all over.  It is never all over.

“Things should start to get interesting right about now…”

There are many recordings of Dylan singing this song live.  Here is one I particularly like

and if you really want to hear a different interpretation just try this next one.  And if I may make a suggestion, please don’t give up after a few seconds.  Give it time.  I’ve heard it 100 times and it still gives me goose pimples in the chorus.  And then when the harmonies click in… well we really have gone onto another planet.

Or at least I have.

Think there’s something missing or wrong with this review?

You are of course always welcome to write a comment below, but if you’d like to go further, you could write an alternative review – we’ve already published quite a few of these.  We try to avoid publishing reviews and comments that are rude or just criticisms of what is written elsewhere – but if you have a positive take on this song or any other Dylan song, and would like it considered for publication, please do email Tony@schools.co.uk

What else is on the site

1: 500+ reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also produced overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines and our articles on various writers’ lists of Dylan’s ten greatest songs.

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews

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11 Responses to Mississippi: the meaning of Dylan’s music and lyrics and two live versions

  1. Shabtai Shacham says:

    For me , it is such a personal intimate emotional masterpiece, that any political, social or general association even as subtext, interferes with the song atmosphere.
    Lines like: “ So many things that we will never undo….”,
    “ Nothing you can sell me…………..”
    “ Say anything you want now………………”
    “ Last night I knew you……………….”
    “ Stick with me baby …………………..”
    “ You can always come back………….”
    Are so personal that any non-personal interpretation distorts the song’s true meaning .

  2. Emily says:

    I, too, am not totally convinced (but intrigued) by the analysis of this song as socio-political as opposed to personal. Some political connotations include: “I was rasised in the country, I’ve been working in the town…” And it does seem like the comparison between these ideal and allegorical versions of humanity (country vs. town) could indeed refer to the politics associated with the managent of large groups of people opposed to relatively self-sufficient farmers. But this song is so reflective rather than assertive for a political message. It seems so concerned with personal relationships – his early political songs were so explicit.

  3. Kevin says:

    Personally I believe Dylan is more direct in many of his more modern songs than most seem to think. …. The skill to me that makes him great is keeping things vague enough for people to insert their own personal situations into the vagueness. … Banking that if it fits to what he went through or experienced it should to you. … He serves his audience that way. I guide​ to real life to give comfort that we’re not alone. … Same thing music has done for him I’d guess. … He’s just paying it forward the best way he knows how. …. So, personal, political etc. … It’s whatever you need it to be on the day & time you hear it. … Simply changes through the listeners own emotional changes … Goes for Mississippi and many, many more. …. For example, when it first came out I found, sleeping in Roses bed, to mean the song’s about a girl and her name is Rose. … I’d actually replace it to the gal I was datings name. Over 15 years later I see it to mean dreaming of death…. Paradise & what it might be, kinda deal. … A play on the term, bed of roses. …. One thing I’ve always taken the same way is the chores meaning, having the blues a little too long. … The prison song is interesting and yet still fits. … Appreciate your time & views on this one & works here in general. Thanks!

  4. Brian Boland says:

    I’ve been listening to bobs songs all my life
    He always blows me away with his skill
    Sometimes I think I know what he means and the I’m not sure I know they work on 2 or three levels I think there’s a lot of bait and switch going on I think he loves screwing around people like rod Stewart that copy every move he makes a statement like I’ve got nothin for you had nothing before talks to the press who are always trying to pidgeon hole him some way and at the same time the copycats but I admit I don’t know that for sure. But reading or listening to bob do what he does is like going home to me he sees through all the bullshit better than anyone. I’m sure glad he’s living his life while I’m living mine reminding me what it means to be a human while the world is trying to turn us all into selfish materialistic robots

  5. Larry Fyffe says:

    Rainer Rilke uses Roses(Rosie) to symbolize sleep and disinterest. God’ not dead; He’s sleeping, and for much too long. When is He going to wake up? I’ve been waiting so long.

  6. Marco Demel says:

    Imagine a stop-over in Missishippi, it won´t take too long. Smithville passengers can switch here to Ancient Footsteps destinations near by and far out, a place of ramblin`ghosts and disturbed spirits. We´re are flying all American Roots/Routes.
    The „Keep & Tell“-crew has an ear for your expectations always trying to feed your soul with deep thoughts. Passengers should confess that life is a gratiutious inexiplicable and binding contract. For travellers of the precariat, who have to stand bad living conditions and are threatened by a constant social decline, might be a good choice…..
    Red light blinking, two highcarriers, which are the subsidiary coms of Fate experiences, the „Glove of Love“ and „ Prophet Wings“ are waiting for a take-off in trying to reach their destinies beyond the horizon and crossing several landscape definitions before teardrops are falling from the sky. Try to pass the mountains of the past and the rivers of the present under the skywaves of the future.
    Imagine, you realize that you have to stay on this airport. The gates are shut down.
    The whole airport is closed and you are cooped in there and you are forced to make your living inbetween this place. Your mind is fed by all these advertisment of salvation and fairy tales of liberty. And you start to work up to all these promised effords but anything you do and any which way you try, you can´t get off this zone. You can built friendships , you may find Love and raising a family. spying the gates , where no change is in sight.
    Longing, pining, yearning, figuring out this high account of patience and hope. Thats life, ready or not.
    Our captain looks back on much flight experience. The problem with the destinations is that they aren´t fixible and not visible. Flying lanes are chanelled by different grades of all the virtues. Forcing or dimming speed and height and personal comfortment can only be afforded by the captains moodiness, for he helds the main idea of our seeking through this troubled place.
    Imagine, a never-ending flight towards the skies, where any answer is blowing in the wind.
    Therefore passengers are requested to be open for some memory work and desultory observations in the light of poetry and prophecy. Passengers are made aware of a deep-seated critique by a muted protest on the inequities of power. All the people here had to learn dealing with a world deformed by violence, where nothing seems to remain of the confidence in peace, emancipation and politics.
    Sounds of resolve and selfpity are coming through in the midst of despair, in a mood of remorse. The captain stands tight in his faith and keeps on hoping for a soon to come new world order with new skies and a new earth, a place where its always save and warm. He tries to share this hope and his love on each new flight through his universe.

  7. rw says:

    All relationships with this sort of intensity have random and surreal moments and this song is about those moment. Staying in Mississippi for a day too long has almost nothing to do with everything that has transpired but the narrator wonders if only he hadn’t how things may have changed. This song has always punched me in the gut. I hate to project but it seems to mean so much too Dylan… once you hear the Tell Tale versions … ones as brilliant as the next. Sometimes they blend together. The released version I have always loved but he did something else with his voice on the unreleased ones. The live one you have presented here captures some of that.

  8. Henry Lee says:

    I always saw the Rose line to mean that the narrator is dreaming of death due to his stuggle with his love. …. After all “bed of roses,” is a phrase that = death.

  9. Graham says:

    Completely agree, Tony. This is an absolute masterwork. I remember when I was first getting into Dylan and had gone through the 60s era and BOTT and got this album (my first bootleg series) and heard Mississippi I couldn’t move. My God. When Dylan makes a classic, time stops. This is one of those times.

    I never interpreted the political connotations that you have here but that adds an extra layer to the subtext that I never considered. This is by far the superior version to the studio release or the alternate take on Telltale Signs. I want this song played at my funeral.

    I’m happy I stumbled upon your site. I’m enjoying these write-ups considerably.

  10. TonyAttwood says:

    Thanks for your kind comments Graham. Very much appreciated; and your funeral, I trust, will not be for many a long year.

  11. Larry fyffe says:

    According to the biblical legend, Moses is to lead the Jews enslaved in Egypt to the Promised Land, but Moses himself did not make it all the way back.

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