The Mississippi-series, part 4

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.

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IV         Bertolt, Bobby, Blind & Boy

City’s just a jungle; more games to play
Trapped in the heart of it, tryin’ to get away
I was raised in the country, I been workin’ in the town
I been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down

 

Bertolt Brecht is quite proud of himself. On September 4, 1921, he writes in his diary about his “groundbreaking discovery”,

“that actually no one has ever described the big city as a jungle. Where are their heroes, their colonizers, their victims? The hostility of the great city, its malicious stone consistency, its Babylonian confusion of languages, in short: its poetry is not yet created.”

In the same weeks, Brecht writes Im Dickicht der Städte (“In the Jungle of Cities”), a dizzying piece in which Brecht is not too concerned about a logical plot or understandable motives, but shows different stages of a catastrophic quarrel between two men. With a vague, homoerotic undertone, so some like to see a dramatic portrayal of a Rimbaud-and-Verlaine-like relationship, but the main theme is: loneliness – extra sharp-edged because the men, despite being in the big, busy city of Chicago, are actually mostly lonely. Most disconsolate expressed by the timber merchant Shlink: “The infinite loneliness of man makes enmity an unattainable goal.”

By the way, Brecht’s complacent diary entry is yet another fine example of the great playwright’s Love & Theft – earlier in his diaries he explains his admiration for Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1905), the social-realist novel that compares the city – not coincidentally also Chicago – to a jungle.  

By the time Dylan writes “Mississippi”, jungle as a metaphor for “big city” is long established. Not only in books, newspapers and films, but also in songs. Songs that are also in Dylan’s record cabinet, anyway. Bobby Darin, for instance.

The 1968 album Born Walden Robert Cassotto marks a rather radical career break for Bobby Darin. He leaves his record label, writes all the songs himself and converts to folk rock, sociocritical lyrics and an unpolished singing style, much more unpolished than the crooning style which made him great. One of the songs, “Long Line Rider”, even causes some controversy, which gets him attention from folk magazine Broadside.

Bobby Darin – Long Line Rider

In the 1969 March/April issue Dylan’s old comrades and doormats print an article from the New York Post of February 1: “Censored Darin Sings a Song of Protest”. The controversy is painfully petty by today’s standards. In the song Darin expresses his amazement at an alleged cover-up operation after the discovery of some unidentified skeletons on a prison site. Remarkably smooth investigation concludes that the corpses were buried there before there was any prison at all, and Darin raises suggestive questions:

All the records show so clear
Not a single man was here
Anyway
Anyway.
That's the tale the warden tells
As he counts his empty shells
By the day
By the day.
Hey, long line rider, turn away.

Just before a television performance (The Jackie Gleason Show, January ’69) record company CBS sends a telegram with the order to delete the above words. Enraged Darin walks out, a scandal seems unavoidable, but it doesn’t really get off the ground.

The song and the story behind it have long since been forgotten, but the flop album itself stands the test of time; it’s a beautiful album with beautiful songs (“I Can See The Wind”, especially, the Leonard Cohen rip-off “In Memoriam” and the Moby Grape-like “Change”). However, style, change of course and the level of protest are not the only indications that Darin is trying to level his idol Dylan. He’s already recorded some successful Dylan covers, will record even more beautiful ones in the coming years (his “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” is one of the most successful covers of that evergreen), and on this record Dylan’s influence is evident from the lyrics Darin writes:

We live in a jingle jangle jungle
You're only worth what you can buy
So keep on workin' hard
To keep your own back yard
Teach your kids that God
Ain't fiction
Contradiction
In this jingle jangle jungle you call home.

Dylan undoubtedly knows the record and the song, but jungle as a metaphor for the big city is more likely to have come to him through Phil Ochs’ “Lou Marsh” (or Pete Seeger’s version thereof):

Now the streets are empty, now the streets are dark
So keep an eye on shadows and never pass the park
For the city is a jungle when the law is out of sight
Death lurks in El Barrio with the orphans of the night

The city is a jungle when the law is out of sight”… the image plus the words that match the opening of Dylan’s “Mississippi”, the opening verses that poetically introduce the oppression, hopelessness and anguish of the protagonist.

After the sixth verse, the accumulatio, the accumulation of the equivalents all expressing approximately the same claustrophobic, Kafkaesque distress, seems to come to an end, and the plot can unfold:

I was raised in the country, I been workin’ in the town
I been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down

… promising a novel-like plot. The trouble, the drastic event in the main character’s life is coming up. A first character description is also given: boy from the countryside, who has to make a living in the metropolitan jungle – and it don’t come easy, as evidenced by the beautiful, lyrical suitcase line.

It’s one of the most beautiful lines in the song, a line with the shine of a polished, old-fashioned blues cliché, but actually a Dylan original – at best it does echo a hint of Blind Lemon Jefferson, “Easy Rider Blues”:

I went to the depot
I mean I went to the depot, set my suitcase down
The blues overtake me and the tears come rollin' down

 

Blind Lemon is a common thread in Dylan’s oeuvre. “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” on the first record, which pops up again in the Basement as “One Kind Favor”, “High Water Blues” as template for “Down In The Flood”, Blind Lemon’s guitar in Masked & Anonymous, the name checks in interviews and in Chronicles, the attention in Theme Time Radio Hour… it’s likely that such a verse fragment as I set my suitcase down was etched in Dylan’s brain by Blind Lemon. His poetic brille does the rest; connecting the words to I been in trouble since is considerably more powerful (and more poetical) than Blind Lemon’s somewhat stiff continuation.

Apparently Boy George, of all people, thinks so too – in the twenty-first century he lovingly steals it for “Wrong” (on U Can Never B2 Straight, 2002):

I came to the city with my head so full of dreams
The city was safe alright but not from me
See I've been in trouble since I lay my suitcase down
I love the sound of my own voice, but now I want it drowned

… insinuating that he is one of those predators that turn the city into a jungle. Which, given “Boy” George Alan O’Dowd’s reputation, indeed does sound a little more convincing from his mouth than from Dylan’s.

To be continued. Next up: Mississippi part V: Frost in the room, fire in the sky

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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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