Mississippi 3: Belshazzar on the steppe

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by Jochen Markhorst

Like earlier compositions, “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): It’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.

III         Belshazzar on the steppe

Every step of the way we walk the line
Your days are numbered, so are mine
Time is pilin’ up, we struggle and we scrape
We’re all boxed in, nowhere to escape

In 1820 Heinrich Heine writes his ballad “Belsazar”, about the last evening of the Babylonian king. That evening, probably October 12, 539 BC, Belshazzar organizes a party. During the feast he is so audacious as to call for the “sacred goblets”, goblets that his grandfather Nebuchadnezzar had stolen from the Temple of Jerusalem during the destruction. He fills a sacred goblet with wine, rises, gulps it in one go to the bottom and, to the great delight of the partygoers present, roars insulting texts about this so-called “Jehovah”, that God of the Jews (Jehovah! I proclaim to you my eternal scorn, for I am the King of Babylon!).

Which he shouldn’t have done.

A hand appears out of nowhere. The hand floats through the room and writes “letters of fire” on the wall. The frenzied revelry is extinguished in one blow and with knocking knees the pale Belshazzar stares at the incomprehensible signs on the wall. The magicians are called in, but no one can decipher those strange symbols.

Belshazzar, however, was murdered that same night by his bodyguard.

Heine re-tells the story from Daniel 5, leaving out, to increase the suspense, the punch line; in the Bible story, the Jewish slave Daniel is brought in, who can indeed tell what those writings on the wall mean: mene mene tekel ufarsin – “numbered, numbered, weighed and divided”. By what God means to say, Daniel helpfully explains to Belsazar, that your days are numbered, that you have been found to be too light, and that your kingdom will be divided.

Like “writings on the wall”, “your days are numbered” has become an expression from which the biblical origins have evaporated; they have both become so common that no one thinks of the Old Testament, Daniel or that cheeky Belshazzar anymore.

Neither does the esteemed Dylan researcher from Albuquerque, Scott Warmuth point to the Bible, but rather to Henry Rollins. Not entirely unjustified; “Mississippi” has indeed borrowed some four, five fragments and word combinations from Rollins’ poems and prose, but attributing this “your days are numbered” to Rollins’ influence is a bit too much credit. The expression has existed for more than twenty centuries (the Book of Daniel was probably written around 165 B.C.) and Dylan himself has used it way before Rollins did (in “When The Ship Comes In”, 1963).

There, in the furious “When The Ship Comes In”, the lieder poet uses the expression in the old, biblical sense: it announces the imminent, ruthless destruction of the enemy and introduces further biblical metaphors (“Pharaoh’s Tribe” and “Goliath”).

However, the protagonist in “Mississippi” is, just like the poet, a couple of decades older and therefore calmer – in this first quatrain, it is one of the seven expressions the narrator chooses to express something like fatigue, hopelessness, existential loneliness.

Individually, the seven expressions are not that spectacular. “Every step of the way” is an ordinary, commonplace phrase, just like “we walk the line” has been established since long before Johnny Cash. The expression has been documented since 1874, indicating the line along which the prisoners in Port Arthur, Tasmania, had to walk during the convict exercise hour, but Johnny Cash probably picked it up from Merle Haggard’s “Sixteen Tons” (1947):

I was born one mornin', it was drizzlin' rain
Fightin' and trouble are my middle name
I was raised in the canebrake by an ol' mama lion
Can't no-a high-toned woman make me walk the line

Cash uses it in the same sense as Merle Haggard: “staying true to your wife” – I find it very easy to be true… because you’re mine, I walk the line. And the songwriter Dylan also uses it often enough with that content (“Can’t Wait”, “Shelter From The Storm”, “Up To Me”, “Let’s Keep It Between Us”), but in “Mississippi” the meaning shifts.

In “Mississippi” the poet is looking for synonyms. In general, Dylan does not shy away from repetitio, from literal repetitions of the same word or an identical word combination. “Everything’s Broken”, “Wiggle Wiggle”, “Hard Rain”, “Rainy Day Women”… at every stage of his career the bard writes “list songs”, songs that rely on the power of repetitio. But here he chooses the accumulatio, the enumeration of equivalents, all of which in this case have a rather Lutheran message: life is suffering.

Characteristic for Dylan’s later work is his multicoloured palette. The seven equivalents are in themselves, separately, not very adventurous. But the special power of this opening coup is the accumulation of expressions from all corners of Dylan’s cultural baggage. The Bible and Johnny Cash are followed by struggle and scrape, which echoes Elvis’ gospel records, or to be more precise: “If We Never Meet Again” that Elvis sings together with The Jordanaires on his first gospel record His Hand In Mine (1960) (“As we struggle through this life and strife”). And “boxed in”, the unusual equivalent of nowhere to escape, with which the quatrain closes, indirectly penetrates Dylan’s vocabulary via those old Lomax recordings, via “Bad Man Ballad”, but Dylan undoubtedly is more familiar with Cisco Houston’s adaptation thereof (“Badman’s Blunder”) and the hit the Kingston Trio scored with it in 1960:

He was steppin’ right along (I was hot-footin’ it)
But he was steppin’ too slow (It was a hot day)
Got surrounded by a sheriff (Boxed in)
In Mexico (I didn’t even have a chance to see the country)

Only the origin of the preceding, tautological nowhere to escape, seems to be a bit further from Dylan’s cradle – in the American Songbook, in the Bible or at Elvis it is not to be found, in any case. Journalists do use it, usually to dramatize coverage of a fire catastrophe (“Power suddenly went out throughout the eight-story building. There was nowhere to escape. The staircases led down into the fire”, New York Times, December 7, 2012).

But with the receptive lyricist Dylan, the source is more literary, perhaps. Chekhov, then. Dylan repeatedly expresses his admiration for the great Russian writer, even suggests in Chronicles that Blood On The Tracks is based on short stories by Chekhov, and reveals in the 1978 Playboy interview: “Chekhov is my favourite writer.”

Traces can be found throughout Dylan’s entire oeuvre, true. The fascination for trains, anyway, the light-absurd, pointless dialogues (“Clothes Line Saga” could have easily been written by the Russian), “Up To Me”, “God Knows” (Chekhov’s most-used stop word), “Seven Days”… all songs in which remarkable twists, idiom and set descriptions seem to come from Chekhov.

And anyway, the entire song “Mississippi” breathes a Chekhov-like, Russian melancholy, and that unusual word combination nowhere to escape can indeed be found with the Russian as well. In his magnificent youth work “The Steppe”, the novella with which he more or less breaks through, in 1888:

“On a hot day when there is nowhere to escape from the sultry, stifling heat, the splash of water and the loud breathing of a man bathing sounds like good music to the ear.”

The novella is a semi-autobiographical account of a journey to Chekhov’s native region, the Mississippi of Russia, the district of Rostov in southern Russia, at the Sea of Azov and the mouth of the Don. Perhaps the most Dylanesque is the lesson that the youthful protagonist learns from his older companions: “Русский человек любит вспоминать, но не любит жить (“Russkij chelovek ljubit vspominat’, no ne ljubit zhit”):

A Russian man loves reminiscing, but he does not love living”

Chekhov is talking about the narrator of “Mississippi”.

To be continued. Next up: Mississippi part IV: Bertolt, Bobby, Blind & Boy

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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