The Mississippi-series, part 16 – Between Point Dume and Oxnard

The Mississippi series

This is part 16 – the final article in the 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.

XVI      Between Point Dume and Oxnard

 

It’s a long, laborious delivery, the final version of “Mississippi”, the wonderful version on “Love & Theft”. First recording attempts date from September ’96 (Oxnard, California). In January ’97 Dylan is in Miami with Lanois for the recording of Time Out Of Mind, with the well-known falling-out and subsequent discard of the song. And finally, the song is put to tape to the satisfaction of the master in May 2001.

We owe that final recording to, as Dylan reveals during the press conference July 2001 in Rome, the fortunate circumstance that those earlier recordings have not been leaked in the meantime, have not been distributed by bootleggers. Whenever that happens, the song is contaminated for me, and Dylan won’t look back:

“But, thank God, it never got out, so we recorded it again. But something like that would never have happened 10 years ago. You’d have probably all heard the trashy version of it and I’d have never re-recorded it.”  

Still, the “trashy version” may well serve to extract a few extra pennies from the fans’ pockets seven years after that press conference; on The Bootleg Series Vol 8: Tell Tale Signs (2008) are three of those rejected versions from ’96 and ’97. All of them beautiful versions, certainly worth the money, and yet another demonstration of Dylan’s incomprehensible take on his own songs. Dylan does have an opinion about that stubborn image too, in this same press meeting:

“I’ve been asked: ‘So how come you’re such a bad judge of your material?’ I’ve been criticized for not putting my best songs on certain albums, but it is because I consider that the song isn’t ready yet. It’s not been recorded right.”

Art history teaches us that this is not a very strong argument. Nabokov seems to have been on his way to the incinerator with Lolita‘s manuscript (but was stopped by his wife). Claude Monet himself destroyed fifteen of his water lily paintings. Michelangelo had worked his brilliant Pietà for eight years and suddenly did not like it anymore; one leg of Christ had already been smashed to smithereens before a church official could intervene (the one-legged Deposition can still be admired in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence). Kafka was extremely reluctant to publish throughout his life, and at the unrelenting insistence of admiring friends only released a fraction. On his deathbed in the sanatorium, he begged his friend Max Brod to burn everything in his study at home – being most of Kafka’s oeuvre, including masterpieces such as Der Prozeß and dozens of stories (Brod ignored the dying man’s wish and published everything).

How it is possible that the artists are such bad critics of their own work, the question that Dylan tries to undo in that press conference, is not answered. Neither by Dylan, who in fact only repeats the question as he “answers” that the works are “not ready yet” or “not recorded right”. A more persistent journalist would have asked; what does “Farewell Angelina” still miss, what exactly is wrong with the recording of “Blind Willie McTell”?

Though presumably the more persistent journalist had not received a satisfactory answer to this either. Not surprisingly, of course – it really is an impossible question, similar to “why do you like this song?” In Dylan’s case, the dissatisfaction must have to do with the sound, the often elusive “colour” of a recording, a quality Dylan appreciates above all else, the quality he values higher than “the right words” or the beauty of a melody.

The story of engineer Mark Howard, both at Time Out Of Mind and “Love And Theft” the studio technician on duty, does illustrate this point quite well:

“Dylan was living in Point Dume, and he’d drive up every day, and he’d tune into this radio station that he could only get between Point Dume and Oxnard. It would just pop up at one point, and it was all these old blues recordings, Little Walter, guys like that. And he’d ask us, “Why do those records sound so great? Why can’t anybody have a record sound like that anymore? Can I have that?” And so, I say, “Yeah, you can get those sound still.” “Well,” he says, “that’s the sound I’m thinking of for this record.”

But apparently, in 1989, in California, he couldn’t get hold of that particular sound for “Mississippi” after all.

According to legend, we owe the final recording and release of “Mississippi” to a tenacious Max Brod 2.0: manager Jeff Rosen is a passionate fan of the song and is believed to have reminded Dylan after the recordings for “Love And Theft”. Which can in any case be deduced from the interview with drummer David Kemper, in the same beautiful Tell Tale Signs Special in Uncut, 2008:

“I know of two versions of “Mississippi”. We thought we were done with Love And Theft, and then a friend of Bob’s passed him a note, and he said, oh, yeah, I forgot about this: “Mississippi”. And then he made a comment, did you guys ever bring the version we did down at the Lanois sessions. And they said, yeah, we have it right here. And he said let’s listen to it. So they put it up on the big speakers, and I said, damn – release it!”

Kemper is a fan, that much is clear. And is touched by the beauty of the song, the richness of the melodies and the grandeur of the lyrics – but, just like any other fan, is not receptive to what Dylan lacks; the “colour” or the sound.

Still, the melodic richness definitely is a distinguishing quality of the song. In general Dylan doesn’t attach much importance to this – likewise on this album, most songs have only two or three chords, Dylan opting for simple blues schemes with a cast-iron lick and few adventurous variations. No problem, of course; after all, in der Beschränkung zeigt sich der Meister, as Goethe teaches, “It is in working within limits that the master reveals himself” and that Dylan can produce masterpieces within these limits he has already demonstrated dozens of times (“All Along The Watchtower”, “Knockin’ On heaven’s Door”, “Desolation Row”).

But every now and then a song pushes him to musically more challenging regions. “She’s Your Lover Now” stumbles over his own melodic richness, “New Morning” is such a multi-coloured example and so is this “Mississippi”.

The tireless Dylanwatcher and researcher Eyolf Østrem from Scandinavia, administrator of the beautiful blog Things Twice and compiler of the legendary “Neanderthal site” (his words) dylanchords, points to a second peculiarity: “Mississippi” is one of the very few Dylan songs with an ascending bass line:

G                      /a         /b                             /c
Got nothing for you, I had nothing before
/d                           /e                            F                 G
Don’t even have anything for myself anymore
G                   /a    /b                            /c
Sky full of fire, pain pouring down
/d                             /e                  F                    G
Nothing you can sell me, I’ll see you around
.

… indeed, an ascending line that neatly climbs the whole scale alphabetically. “Like A Rolling Stone” does that too, but there aren’t many other examples in Dylan’s oeuvre. And there aren’t too many outside of Dylan’s oeuvre either. The chorus of The Eagles’ first hit, “Take It Easy” (1972, written by Jackson Brown and Glenn Frey) has partly the same scheme (under “Don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy”), but that’s about it.

Like “Blind Willie McTell” and “Make You Feel My Love”, the cover is released before the original. After Dylan rejected the song for Time Out Of Mind, he donated it to Sheryl Crow, who records it for her album The Globe Sessions (1998). That version may have inspired Dylan to give it another shot himself; Crows “Mississippi” is okay but lacks shine, with a rather joyless and awkward Whoo! finishing it off.

The Dixie Chicks fare a lot better, with a dazzling and sparkling interpretation on the live album Top Of The World Tour (2003). Same approach as Crow, but with real pleasure, passion and thrust (bursting from every single live performance). A small lyrical adjustment does reveal that all the ladies are a bit less tough than the image they are trying to maintain, though:

I was thinkin’ ’bout the things that you said
I was dreaming I was sleepin’ in your bed

…apparently a possible homoerotic suspicion is a little too scary for both Sheryl Crow and The Chicks’ powerhouse Natalie Maines, so they’d rather turn the sung Rosie into a gender-neutral you. Musically, The Chicks more than compensate for the slip. The organ part from The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” in the split to splinters-couplet, for instance, is a golden find.

In June 2020 The Dixie Chicks will also change their own name, for politically correct reasons, to The Chicks, to meet this moment, as the official statement says. In 2003 Maines had declared from the podium that she was ashamed of President Bush and the Iraq war, which led to a long, hefty hate campaign including death threats. Since then, The Chicks have been more sensitive to the right thing to do. Fortunately, “Mississippi” isn’t “wrong” yet; in 2020 the song is still on the setlist.

Remarkably, the best version so far comes from Scotland. Veteran Rab Noakes plays live a sober, compelling version in which he manages to bring together both the folky Dylan from 1961 and the elderly troubadour from 2001. Just an acoustic Gibson and Noakes’ relaxed, light-hearted, little hoarse rendition… proving you can come back all the way, after all.

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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