Mississippi (Tell Tale Signs): the meaning of the music and the lyrics

By Tony Attwood

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”.

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 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”

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2 Responses to Mississippi (Tell Tale Signs): the meaning of the music and the lyrics

  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.

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