The Mississippi-series, part 8: Pretty Maids All In A Row

The Mississippi-series, part 8

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.


VIII       Pretty Maids All In A Row

Well, the devil’s in the alley, mule’s in the stall
Say anything you wanna, I have heard it all
I was thinkin’ ’bout the things that Rosie said
I was dreaming I was sleepin’ in Rosie’s bed

 “I didn’t really have to grapple much. It’s the kind of thing where you pile up stream-of-consciousness verses and then leave it alone and come pull things out.” That’s what Dylan says in response to “I Contain Multitudes” in the 12 June 2020 New York Times interview.

It is a pleasant, worth reading interview with a grand old man reflecting on his own work with attractive modesty and a strange mix of wonder plus resignation. We were already familiar with the tenor of his self-analysis; in earlier interviews Dylan often tells us that he has no idea where those songs come from. But by now he is almost eighty and chooses his words more soberly than ever – and at the same time with a kind of self-evident acceptance of the magic behind them. He calls his creative phase “trance writing”, he doesn’t plan his songs, songs come “out of the blue, out of thin air”, and:

“The songs seem to know themselves and they know that I can sing them, vocally and rhythmically. They kind of write themselves and count on me to sing them.”

Beautifully phrased, with a charming touch of mysticism – but meanwhile the old bard really could add the proviso that the songs do not come entirely “out of the blue” or “out of thin air”. That the “songs seem to know themselves” has a rather earthy explanation: large parts of his songs already exist. For decades, usually.

So, in this verse “devil in the alley” comes from Dorsey Dixon, and most other words don’t come falling from the sky either, but from other people’s songs.

“Mule’s in the stall” Dylan borrows – consciously or unconsciously – from an old acquaintance, from Howlin’ Wolf, from “Evil (Is Goin’ On)”:

Well, long way from home and
Can't sleep at all
You know another mule
Is kickin' in your stall

 Written by Willie Dixon and recorded by Howlin’ Wolf as early as 1954, but in ’69 he scored his last hit with a re-recording of the song. It’s a cool swinging Chicago blues from which Dylan will also lend the sound and stomp, for songs like “Lonesome Day Blues” and “Cry A While”, for example.

The “blue” out of which I was thinkin’ ’bout the things that Rosie said seems to fall is somewhat more unlikely, at least until 2020, when Dylan lists his long list of request numbers in part 4 of “Murder Most Foul”. Apart from usual suspects like “The Long, Lonesome Road”, John Lee Hooker, “Mystery Train” and “I’d Rather Go Blind”, the narrator requests DJ Wolfman Jack to play surprising, undylanesque songs like Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust” and Beethoven, and in between, among those surprising requests is equally striking: “Play Don Henley – play Glen Frey”.

Interviewer Douglas Brinkley did notice it too, and in that New York Times article he enquires:

Your mention of Don Henley and Glenn Frey on Murder Most Foul came off as a bit of a surprise to me. What Eagles songs do you enjoy the most?
“New Kid in Town,” “Life in the Fast Lane,” “Pretty Maids All in a Row.” That could be one of the best songs ever.

Every artist in the world will be particularly flattered when one of his songs is awarded by Bob Dylan as “one of the best songs ever”, but it’s a bit sad for Joe Walsh that Dylan seems to think it’s a Henley and Frey song – this is the only song from Hotel California that was written by Walsh (although he also gets a co-credit for the guitar lick of “Life In The Fast Lane”). As a consolation: the list of songs that the Nobel Prize winner calls “one of the best songs ever” is already a few pages long.

Still, a bit mysterious Dylan’s praise is; the bard undoubtedly belongs to a very small minority of music lovers who will regard “Pretty Maids All In A Row” so highly – indeed, few people will find it even the album’s best song. Objectively, if that is possible at all, songs like “Hotel California” or, say, “The Last Resort” are just better songs.

Anyway, it seems to have animated Dylan to follow the men’s solo careers as well, and the otherwise rather insignificant “I Got Love” of Glen Frey’s solo album The Allnighter (1984) apparently kept wavering in the thin air:

Jumped on the freeway with this song in my head
I started thinkin' 'bout the things we said
I said I'm sorry; She said I'm sorry too;
You know I can't be happy 'less I'm happy with you.

…from which both that thinkin’ about the things we said and I said I’m sorry; she said I’m sorry too seem to descend into “Mississippi”. Surprising, yet in line with other unlikely sources for Dylan’s production – such as a Japanese gangster epic, obscure nineteenth-century poets and a 1961 Time magazine.

The closing lines of this quatrain, in which a certain “Rosie” is sung, more or less bring the song “home”- after all, the refrain line of the poem originates from the song recorded by Lomax, from “Rosie”.

In the same 2020 New York Times interview, Dylan reveals how he writes “most of my recent songs”, yet again in response to “I Contain Multitudes”. Not only the qualification trance writing stands out, but also Dylan’s own analysis of the trigger for those stream-of-consciousness verses:

“In that particular song, the last few verses came first. So that’s where the song was going all along. Obviously, the catalyst for the song is the title line. It’s one of those where you write it on instinct. Kind of in a trance state.”

This is about a song he (presumably) writes in 2020. But it seems to apply one-on-one to a song he wrote a quarter of a century earlier, to “Mississippi”. Just like Dylan uses the lines with the Walt Whitman quote as a starting point for “I Contain Multitudes”, the obvious starting point here is Lomax’ Only one thing I did wrong / Stayed in Mississippi a day too long – and then the stream-of-consciousness starts to flow.

“Rosie” bubbling up halfway is, all in all, not that surprising anymore.

To be continued. Next up: Mississippi part IX: Abandon all hope


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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  1. Well, the devil’s in the alley, mule’s in the stall
    Say anything you want to, I’ve heard it all
    (Bob Dylan: Mississippi)

  2. Soothe me, baby
    Move me baby
    Yes, I heard it all
    Another mule is kicking at my stall
    (Fats Domino: Another Mule ~ D. Bartholomew)

  3. Q: The Glenn Frey-connection (I Got Love), is that an original finding here, or is there another source for it? (Scott Warmuth comes to mind, but I don’t think he mentions it?). I am writing a piece (in Norwegian) on BD’s borrowings, and in case I mention this example, I’d like to credit the source. Thank you in advance, and in general for a terrific series of essays on this song. And to Larry fyffe for the Fats Domino-reference, I was not aware of that either.

  4. Takk, Amund, for your kind words.
    A: I have not yet seen the Glenn Frey connection anywhere else. Surely I’m not the only one on this planet to have made the click, but as it is, I got it from my own “gathered from coincidence” folder.
    Good luck with your article and please consider writing it in English as well (my Norwegian is a bit rusty).

  5. Selv takk! Rusty Norwegian already sounds like something to me (to put it that way); it’s not exactly a world language… “Gathered by coincidence” would not be a bad name for a webpage where all this stuff was, well, gathered in one place; some ten years ago there was “Bob Dylan’s Hermeneutics”-page hosted by a certain “Arthur J.” with contributions by Warmuth and a swarm of others, but it seems to have disappeared. – It should be noted that your Glenn Frey-verse not only leads to “Mississippi,” but also to “High Water”: “I just can’t be happy, love / Unless you’re happy too” (an improvement on the original, I am inclined to think…). – Now, I have just become aware of a number of books of yours, and I am surely going to check them out (I have looked into the Mississippi book in particular, though so far only via Amazon’s preview). Why not before, well, for many years I have avoided books on Dylan as best I could; old school dylanologist “debunking” of this and that in Dylan’s output tended to destroy my mood back then, as if I couldn’t be happy unless Hey & Gray were happy too; I’m over that now. Criticism has its place, but very much I endorse Ezra Pound’s saying in ABC of Reading that “gloom and solemnity are entirely out of place in even the most rigorous study of an art originally intended to make glad the heart of man” – and whining about old Bob’s shortcomings in the light of BOB&BOTT seems to me a strange way to spend one’s time. Your books are none of the kind, I perceive, and I am looking forward to reading them.

    Jumped on the freeway with this song in my head
    I started thinkin’ ’bout the things we said
    I said I’m sorry; She said I’m sorry too;
    You know I can’t be happy ‘less I’m happy with you.

    I just can’t be happy, love
    Unless you’re happy too

  6. *from* coincidence… and it was not my intention to cite the Frey-verse cum High Water by way of conclusion, it just happened by coincidence (there seems to be no reedit-function here?); but ok, then it’s gathered in one place. PS. I don’t know if it will work, but if it does, here is a 2007-essay in rusty Norwegian on “Dylan at the Black Sea,” where 30-40 Ovid-“quotes” are identified (a few more have appeared since then, in work by Richard F. Thomas and/or Robert Polito and a maybe a few others; I haven’t got my complete list at hand right now):

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