Previously in this series
- The Mississippi-series, part 1; no polyrhythm here please
- The Mississippi-series, part 2: the line that never was.
- The Mississippi- series, part 3: Belshazzar on the steppe
- The Mississippi-series, part 4: Bertolt, Bobby, Blind & Boy
- The Mississippi-series, part 5: Frost in the room, fire in the sky
- The Mississippi-series, part 6: Charades
- The Mississippi series: part 7: Dorsey Dixon
- The Mississippi-series, part 8: Pretty Maids All In A Row
- The Mississippi-series, part 9: Abandon all hope
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.
X Eyesight To The Blind
Some people will offer you their hand and some won’t
Last night I knew you, tonight I don’t
I need somethin’ strong to distract my mind
I’m gonna look at you ’til my eyes go blind
More than halfway the song and it gets harder and harder to follow Dylan’s claim from that Rolling Stone interview, about the song touching on the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. And it’s increasingly understandable that producer Lanois argues for “sexy and more sexy”.
The narrator is emotional and at the very least suggests that his current feelings of regret and loss are due to a recent break-up. In the blues jargon of Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon, the mule in the stall is a love rival, the man with whom your wife has just deceived you. The narrator worries about the things “Rosie” said and dreams of lying in “Rosie’s” bed again. And now he’s wandering around like a stranger, dazed and confused, regretting the things that can’t be undone, and presuming that “you” have regrets too… no, it’s quite easy to follow how Lanois hears a sultry love drama between the lines.
That doesn’t get any less in this verse.
Genesis 38 is a somewhat lust-filled, ruthless, and farcical intermezzo in the Bible’s first book. The book tries to bring some order to the chaotic family history of Judah, the fourth Founding Father of the Tribes. Judah’s first son Er is “wicked”, so God has to kill him, unfortunately. Brother Onan then has to fulfill his obligations and impregnate Er’s widow, but he prefers to spill his seed on the rocks. Beep beep, Jack, you’re dead (“And the thing which he did displeased the Lord: wherefore he slew him also”). Which means, subsequently: another widow to take care of. All right, says Judah to this fresh widow, his daughter-in-law Tamar, when my third son will be old enough, you shall be his wife.
But Judah forgets, or changes his mind. Thamar works all these years in his household but does not get a husband – not even that third son, who is old enough by now. Then comes the farcical element: Tamar “covered her with a vail” and, masked and anonymous, stands whorishly “by the way to Timnath”, where her father-in-law passes by a little later. He thinks he sees an attractive harlot and wants to “come in unto her”. He can’t pay now, but gives his signet ring, cord and staff as pledge. When Judah returns to pay, Tamar and his pledge are gone.
A few months later his daughter-in-law Tamar turns out to be pregnant. So obviously, she has to die, because that’s how it’s supposed to be. But then Tamar shows the things of the man who has impregnated her: signet ring, cord and staff. This puts Judah in his place. “She hath been more righteous than I.” And he knew her again no more.
It is the fourth time in Genesis that knew is used in the sense of having intercourse. That’s how Daniel Lanois hears Dylan using it in “Mississippi”: “Last night I knew you, tonight I don’t” – and in that case it may indeed sound sexy and more sexy.
Hardly “Constitutional” or “Bill Of Rights”, but equally erotic, or at least amorous, is the desperate follow-up. Word choice now seems to be inspired by the blues canon again, although the well-versed may also think of Samson – who remained in love with Delilah, after all, until his eyes were gouged out. More obvious, however, is Aleck “Rice” Miller, better known as Sonny Boy Williamson II.
Sonny Boy Williamson comes from Mississippi, which may be a trigger, but the harmonica virtuoso is a constant in Dylan’s oeuvre anyway. The bard quotes Williamson in songs like “Outlaw Blues”, copies “Don’t Start Me Talkin” for the throwaway “Stop Now” (of which he then literally takes the chorus from Williamson’s “Stop Now Baby”), and Dylan plays the same “Don’t Start Me Talkin’” with The Plugz in the David Letterman Show, 1984.
In Chronicles, the autobiographer dreams up the story how Sonny Boy gave him a harmonica lesson once (“Boy, you play too fast”); in Theme Time Radio Hour, radio maker Dylan plays no less than eight of his songs and his later songs are stuffed with references too; “Your Funeral And My Trial” in “Cry A While”, for example, and in “Spirit On The Water” the Nobel Prize winner quotes both from “Black Gal Blues” and “Sugar Mama Blues”.
Here, in “Mississippi”, Dylan chooses a reversal of Sonny Boy’s immortal classic “Eyesight To The Blind”:
You're talking about your woman, I wish to God, man, that you could see mine You're talking about your woman, I wish to God that you could see mine Every time the little girl start to loving, She bring eyesight to the blind
It seems to be some sort of a personal matter for Williamson, by the way. “Born Blind”, “Don’t Lose Your Eye”, “Unseeing Eye”… quite a few songs from his catalogue lack the light in the eyes.
His most famous in that category, “Eyesight To The Blind”, he does record a few times himself (among others, with Willie Dixon and with Elmore James), and appears on the records and setlists of big guns like B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Mose Allison, Gary Moore and Aerosmith. Officially promoted to rock history, the song is in 1969, by Pete Townshend for Tommy, of course. Though the biggest hit with it was scored by The Larks in 1951 (Top 10 in the R&B charts), which is perhaps one of the best arrangements indeed.
But Dylan’s reversal is the most clever variant; Sonny Boy’s blind can see again when she “starts to loving”, with Dylan the seeing “therefore” become blind when she stops loving again, when the love is over.
To be continued. Next up: Mississippi part XI: Bonnie Blue
Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:
- Blood on the Tracks: Dylan’s Masterpiece in Blue
- Blonde On Blonde: Bob Dylan’s mercurial masterpiece
- Where Are You Tonight? Bob Dylan’s hushed-up classic from 1978
- Desolation Row: Bob Dylan’s poetic letter from 1965
- Basement Tapes: Bob Dylan’s Summer of 1967
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