The Mississippi-series, part 13 – Down In The Groove

The Mississippi-series, part 13

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): 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.

 

XIII       Down In The Groove

Everybody movin’ if they ain’t already there
Everybody got to move somewhere
Stick with me baby, stick with me anyhow
Things should start to get interestin’ right about now

 

“What would I say if I met Dylan?” His answer, in keeping with his stylish image, is elegant: “I hope you don’t mind.”

Bryan Ferry is being interviewed for his Dylan album Dylanesque (2007), a tribute project arousing rather diverging opinions. The title is a red rag: the Dylan covers by Ferry, the grand master of irony, are anything but Dylanesque – smooth polished, tastefully arranged, wrinkle-free produced… in short, Ferry-esque. Hardcore Dylan fans are rarely tolerant of covers anyway, but the less rabid fans also miss the rough and rowdy, the jagged edges and the raw emotion.

However, the more neutral listeners are generally positive. Also because songs like “Simple Twist Of Fate” and “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” have a magical, almost indestructible power – they are almost impossible to mess up. And Ferry’s adaptation of “Positively Fourth Street” actually has an enriching quality. The acoustic package (piano and Spanish guitar, mainly) plus Ferry’s somewhat plaintive, high pitched vocals do have an unreal, alienating effect; the contrast of the graceful recitation with the mean, snarling lyrics is fascinating.

Anyhow, it’s quite likely that the bard at that fictional meeting with Roxy Music’s old foreman would say: “I most certainly don’t mind. On the contrary.”

Ferry has been lining Dylan’s pockets since 1973, when the single from his first solo album These Foolish Things, an equally alienating version of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, became a big hit. The royalties for “It Ain’t Me, Babe” from the successor Another Time, Another Place – again gold – and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and “Don’t Think Twice” from the well-selling album Frantic (2002) are not bad either and are increased fivefold by the equally well-selling Dylanesque.

Apart from that financially motivated, obvious approval from the master, Dylan might also have artistic appreciation. Dylan repeatedly confesses, both in Chronicles and in interviews as well as in his MusiCares speech, his gratitude and sympathy for all his colleagues who cover his songs. Bryan Ferry probably even has an edge.

The contemporaries (Dylan is four years older) largely share the same musical taste, the same missionary drive and even an overlapping choice of repertoire. Years before Dylan’s “Sinatra albums” Ferry already has success with his declaration of love to the same American Songbook, the gold-scoring As Time Goes By (1999).

This shared, wide-ranging taste is perhaps best noticeable on Ferry’s third solo album, Let’s Stick Together (1976). A tasteful adaptation of the long-standing “You Go To My Head”, which Dylan will record for Triplicate forty years later, “Shame, Shame, Shame” from Jimmy Reed, sung on Rough And Rowdy Ways, Ferry’s own ode to Dylan’s cast-iron art motto “Re-make/Re-model” (“next time is the best time, we all know”), his ode to Humphrey Bogart (“2HB”) and the opening song, the song with which Ferry scores his biggest solo hit: “Let’s Stick Together”.

 

Dylan chooses “Let’s Stick Together” as the opening track for his maligned album Down In The Groove (1988) and most music lovers will agree that Dylan can’t match the excitement, drive and pure musical pleasure that bursts from Ferry’s arrangement. Or from the original, by Wilbert Harrison, 1962.

Wilbert Harrison has earned his ticket to the rock ‘n’ roll Olympus three years earlier, with “Kansas City” – the song from which Dylan lovingly steals for “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” (they got some hungry women there is a hardly disguised derivative from Wilbert’s they got some crazy women there) and for “High Water” (He made it to Kansas City, Twelfth Street and Vine is literally copied), and the song from which radio maker Dylan says in 2006: “You all know this song, and it’s always good” (Theme Time Radio Hour episode 20, “Musical Map”).

Harrison himself edited “Let’s Stick Together” in 1969 and turned it into “Let’s Work Together”, with the classic line Together we will stand, divided we’ll fall. He scores a modest hit with it. But in 1970 it becomes for Canned Heat the biggest hit in the band’s long career (number 2 in the UK, bigger than “On The Road Again” and “Going Up The Country”). However, both Ferry and Dylan prefer the less preachy, more pure rock variant “Let’s Stick Together”.

It is, after “Shenandoah”, the second time that thematic or textual lines can be drawn from Down In The Groove to “Mississippi”, providing yet again some insight into Dylan’s working method and sources of inspiration, and illustrating Dylan’s own wording of his working method:

“What happens is, I’ll take a song I know and simply start playing it in my head. That’s the way I meditate. A lot of people will look at a crack on the wall and meditate, or count sheep or angels or money or something, and it’s a proven fact that it’ll help them relax. I don’t meditate on any of that stuff. I meditate on a song. I’ll be playing Bob Nolan’s ‘Tumbling Tumbleweeds,’ for instance, in my head constantly — while I’m driving a car or talking to a person or sitting around or whatever. People will think they are talking to me and I’m talking back, but I’m not. I’m listening to the song in my head. At a certain point, some of the words will change and I’ll start writing a song.”

(Robert Hilburn interview, 2003)

In the run up to “Mississippi” quite a few songs are playing in the head, apparently. And Down In The Groove reveals some of them. The stick with me from “Let’s Stick Together”, the hopeless narrator in “Sally Sue Brown” is goin’ south to humiliate himself in front of Sally Sue again, and the desolate state of the protagonist in “Mississippi” is an echo of what Dylan already heard from his beloved Stanley Brothers, in “Rank Strangers To Me”:

I wandered again to my home in the mountains
Where in youth's early dawn I was happy and free
I looked for my friends but I never could find them
I found they were all rank strangers to me

 

Still, the apotheosis, the brille of the final line things should start to get interesting right about now does not come from a song that haunts Dylan, but is one of the three or four selfless contributions by soulmate Henry Rollins:

I shook 1992 by the neck
The road shot into me
Now there's only 1993
Don’t attach
Hit hard
Disappear into the treeline
Keep moving
It gets harder to get up in the morning
Lines on my face
It should start getting interesting right about now 

(Now Watch Him Die, 1993)

Rollins, the great, multitalented artist from Washington D.C., and in every conceivable respect the opposite of the distinguished Geordie Bryan Ferry from Washington, County Durham.

To be continued. Next up: Mississippi part XIV: Unca Donald

The Mississippi series

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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