The Mississippi-series, part I; no polyrhythm here please

by Jochen Markhorst

Like earlier “Desolation Row” and “Where Are You Tonight?”, “Mississippi” can’t really be dealt with in one article. Too grand, too majestic, too monumental. And, of course, such an extraordinary masterpiece deserves more than one paltry article. As the master says (not about “Mississippi”, but about bluegrass, in the New York Times interview of June 2020): Its’s mysterious and deep rooted and you almost have to be born playing it. […] It’s harmonic and meditative, but it’s out for blood.

I           Sexy Afro- polyrhythm

“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.”

(David Fricke interview for Rolling Stone, 2001)

In the A&E Series Biography, Peter Guralnick’s brilliant documentary about Sam Phillips is broadcast in 2000: “Sam Phillips – The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll”. The film lasts 90 fascinating minutes, and towards the end the sons of Phillips, Jerry and Knox, talk about their father’s interference with John Prine.

At the beginning of 1979 John Prine records a particularly atypical record, Pink Cadillac. After five albums full of widely admired songs, songs for which even Dylan takes off his hat, Prine wants to profess his love for good old rock ‘n’ roll with his sixth album. For the first and only time in his career, the lyrics are of minor importance. It had to be good, honest music, according to Prine in the liner notes of the album.

He repeats it more poetically in the liner notes of the unsurpassed compilation album Great Days, also written down by David Fricke in 1993:

“I wanted to do something noisy, something like if you had a buddy with a band and you walked into his house and you could hear ’em practicing in the basement.”

He would like to record that album in the studio of the legendary Sun Records producer Sam Phillips in Memphis, led by sons Jerry and Knox Phillips, who will also produce Prine’s record. However, to Prine’s delight, one day Dad stops by – and he takes charge of the production right away.

Today “Saigon” and “How Lucky” are on the roll.

The old Phillips only came in to say hello, hears Prine’s – in his ears – “awful” singing and just has to do something. First he thunders his displeasure with Prine’s limp vocals into the studio via the intercom from the control room. “And then he put extra reverb, the slap-back echo, on his voice,” Prine tells. “You felt like Moses talking to the burning bush.”

When it still doesn’t suffice, Phillips slides on his kitchen chair into Prine’s comfort zone and snaps, millimetres from Prine’s face, eyes maniacally wide open and bulging: “And John, can you put some sex in it?

In the documentary, son Knox, who does look a lot like his father, imitates it in a terrifying way, including the wildly insane look.

The next recording of “Saigon” satisfies Sam, but some question marks may be placed over his judgement – Prine’s vocals on this final recording actually do sound rather twisted, unnatural and not very spontaneous. The protagonist nevertheless looks back with pride and affection, in the same documentary. “I was in the studio with Sam Phillips, you know. If Sam told me to stand on my head and sing that night, I would’ve.”

Phillips wanting to hear sex in “Saigon” is conceivable, indeed:

You got everything that a girl should grow
I’m so afraid to kiss you I might lose control
You can hold me tighter but turn loose of my gun
It’s a sentimental present all the way from Saigon

But why Daniel Lanois thinks “Mississippi” should sound “sexy, sexy and more sexy” is less understandable. Dylan does have a point when he says, “The circumstances were not similar.”

However, Dylan’s next statement, still in the same paragraph of that interview with David Fricke for Rolling Stone, is once again familiarly enigmatic:

“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.”

My my. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and before that Dylan also points to a hidden expressive meaning behind the lyrics.
Poor Daniel Lanois; that indeed does require some explanation. The ease with which Dylan shifts complete verses back and forth and the untroubled way with which he deletes entire verse lines (for example, the third outtake opens with I’m standing in the shadows with an aching heart / I’m looking at the world tear itself apart) doesn’t really support the statement that Dylan himself sees very clearly what he wants to express in the text.

Even more puzzling is Dylan’s analysis a little earlier in the interview:

“Lanois didn’t see it. Thought it was pedestrian. Took it down the Afro-polyrhythm route — multirhythm drumming, that sort of thing. Polyrhythm has its place, but it doesn’t work for knifelike lyrics trying to convey majesty and heroism.”

“Multi-rhythm drumming” and “Afro-polyrhythm” does sound a bit hysterical, frankly. On the rejected, breathtakingly beautiful recordings, the three versions which will eventually be released on The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs: Rare and Unreleased 1989-2006 (2008), there is no such thing. Lanois creates a J.J. Cale-like atmosphere, including a tapping foot – it really is not that fancy. It almost seems as if Dylan confuses the song with the also rejected recordings of “Series Of Dreams”, a song that – although it cannot be catalogued under the heading “majesty and heroism” – is indeed filled with a cascade of furious, overwhelming drumming, with “multi-rhythm drumming” and “Afro-polyrhythm”.

Sexy it is, though.

To be continued. Next up: Mississippi part II: Lomax’ Death

Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold.  His books are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:

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