The Mississippi-series, part 6


The Mississippi series

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.

VI         Charades

All my powers of expression and thoughts so sublime
Could never do you justice in reason or rhyme
Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long

Ineradicable, and sometimes tiring, are the many, many Dylan admirers and exegeses who persistently try to interpret Dylan songs biographically. It leads to puzzling with facts and names from the man’s life, to often rather embarrassing “analyses” that try to prove that one you “actually” is Dylan’s wife Sara, another her “actually” Joan Baez, and a baby in a third song “actually” Edie Sedgwick, or something like that.

In doing so, the puzzlers trivialise – unintentionally, we may hope – Dylan’s poetry, downgrading it to petty settlements, childishly encrypted diary entries and small-minded gossip. Inappropriate, and unworthy of a great artist. Of course; private impressions and personal observations do whirl down into Dylan’s work, as with any true artist. You can’t describe a train journey poetically if you’ve never been on a train, you can’t describe jealousy poetically if you’ve never experienced this particular emotion, and you must have been confronted at least once with leopard fur and women’s hats to be able to use it effectively as an accessory in lyrics. And more than that it is not – “These are images which are just in there and have got to come out,” as the writer says in the SongTalk interview with Paul Zollo, 1991.

Dylan himself declares since the 60’s, following Rimbaud, that je est un autre, that the self in his songs is not the same as the writer of the song. As the then only sixteen year old Rimbaud writes in the same Lettre du Voyant: “La chanson est si peu souvent l’oeuvre, c’est-à-dire la pensée chantée et comprise du chanteur – the song is so rarely the work or the sung thought of the singer himself.”

The statement is beautifully illustrated by a witness statement, by Malcom Burn, musician and recording engineer of Oh Mercy, in the fascinating Tell Tale Signs Special interview series in Uncut:

“Nothing on the record took a lot of takes really. The only thing we took a lot of time getting – and this is another interesting thing about is approach – is like, if he was fixing a vocal part. Y’know if he wanted to punch in just a part of a song again. It was never about whether it was in tune or out of tune or anything like that. It would be – let’s say he’s singing a replacement line – he’d sing it and you’d try to mix it into the original track, he’d listen to it and he’d say, “Ah, nah, nah, nah. That’s not the guy.” And I’d say, “The guy?” And he’d say, “Yeah. It’s not the same guy.”

“It’s not the guy,” it’s not the person whose character the performer Dylan takes on for this particular song. Burn learns a lot from it, he says. It’s not so very important whether a verse sounds a little out of tune, or not quite in time, that doesn’t interest Dylan in the least – the personality, “the guy” has to be right. It is, in short, acting; je est un autre.

So the man who, in these verses of “Mississippi”, says that he has such great powers of expression and such sublime thoughts, is not Dylan himself. Any doubt about this is definitively dispelled by Elton John, in his disconcerting, very witty and shameless autobiography Me (2019):

“Simon and Garfunkel had dinner one night, then played charades. At least, they tried to play charades. They were terrible at it. The best thing I can say about them is that they were better than Bob Dylan. He couldn’t get the hang of the ‘how many syllables?’ thing at all. He couldn’t do ‘sounds like’ either, come to think of it. One of the best lyricists in the world, the greatest man of letters in the history of rock music, and he can’t seem to tell you whether a word’s got one syllable or two syllables or what it rhymes with! He was so hopeless, I started throwing oranges at him.”

Now, Elton’s memories aren’t necessarily very reliable. This is at a time when Sir Elton Hercules John is a renowned bulk consumer of liquor and drugs, and the orange scene has to be told to him the next morning by others, to his own horror, but the core of the story, Dylan’s clumsiness at a game of Charades, must be true.

And meanwhile Elton of course recognizes the greatness of Dylan’s lyrics. He surely recognizes the tenor of these verses, of

All my powers of expression and thoughts so sublime
Could never do you justice in reason or rhyme.

After all, the Rocketman himself has had a Dylan song on the shelf for years, for which he just can’t find the right je-ne-sais-quoi:

“There are words that Bernie’s written that I’ve never managed to come up with music for. He wrote a great lyric called ‘The Day That Bobby Went Electric’, about hearing Dylan sing ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ for the first time, and I just couldn’t get a tune I thought was right; I tried four or five times.”

Probably early 1980, for the 21 At 33 album. The leaked demo is quite nice by the way, but is not about “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. Elton’s regular lyricist Bernie Taupin closes in the last verse:

The day that Bobby went electric
I was struggling through my teens
And when he plugged in up at Newport
I was caught up in a dream

… so that must have been “Maggie’s Farm”.

As far as the content of these “Mississippi” lines is concerned, the message is not too earth-shattering, obviously. “There are no words to describe your beauty” is actually a rather corny compliment. And the easy way out for the failing poet, who, after all, is paid to find the words to describe beauty, feelings, emotion at all. Sarah Vaughan’s “Words Can’t Describe”, “I Don’t Know How To Say I Love You” by The Superlatives, Sinatra’s “How Deep Is The Ocean?”… it is of all times and apparently even the biggest guns do have the odd off-day – and then turn need into a virtue, creating from the search for the right words a masterpiece that thematises exactly that very speechlessness. Shakespeare, of course (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”), Goethe’s Werther, Rimbaud (“ne sachant m’expliquer sans paroles païennes, je voudrais me taire – unaware how to express myself without pagan words, I’d rather be mute”)… and Dylan, of course.

In an uninspired past, the bard has sought refuge in that escape route. In “Never Say Goodbye” for example:

You’re beautiful beyond words
You’re beautiful to me

As well, in a sad variant, in the mean “Ballad In Plain D” (“The words to say I’m sorry, I haven’t found yet”) – but there it is still more beautifully, poetically phrased than in “Never Say Goodbye”. And again, in the twenty-first century, Dylan does find another poetically successful way of saying that he doesn’t know what to say: I’m searching for phrases to sing your praises (“Soon After Midnight”, 2012).

And the same paradoxical achievement comes from the guy from “Mississippi”, thanks to screenwriter Dylan: he finds great words to say he can’t find words.

To be continued. Next up: Mississippi part VII: Dorsey Dixon

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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