One More Day in Mississippi
Looking line by line at Dylan’s third act masterpiece
by Christopher Deutsch
There is joy and mystery to being a Bob Dylan fan. Aside from a catalogue of music large enough to keep you listening ’till your ship comes in, his songs grow with you, their meaning changing with age and the ups and downs of life. And of course, Dylan’s songs are ripe for endless exploration, with no shortage of Dylanologists offering their interpretations of every lyric. One might argue the world doesn’t need another. Bob certainly would.
Lately, I’ve returned to the song “Mississippi.” It’s a stone-cold classic for sure but right now the song hits a different spot.
It lingers in the air, more moving for me than ever before. Trying to pin down the meaning behind a Dylan song is like climbing a staircase designed by M.C. Escher. To quote Dylan, “you find out when you reach the top, you’re on the bottom.” There are rarely definitive answers.
I’ve always been more interested in how these songs make me feel. But listening again to “Mississippi” has me wondering why I feel the way I do. Like many, I am trying to make sense of the recent past and reckon with the uncertainty of our future. “Mississippi” is an especially evocative song for this moment. Many have offered their interpretations, but I haven’t seen anything that captures my sense of its meaning.
Many analyses have Dylan singing about a failed relationship. He’s been seeing someone, she’s been seeing someone else, he figures it out and engages in some existential angst about the whole enterprise. I do think this is a relationship song, but not a romantic one. Lyrically, it doesn’t read like a classic Dylan tale of lost, found, or unrequited love. For as abstract as Dylan can be, he’s also direct; especially when he’s been wronged or in a state of romantic longing.
It has been argued that “Mississippi” is a political commentary. In 2001 Dylan spoke to David Fricke about his struggle to record “Mississippi” with producer Danial Lanois: “I tried to explain that the song had more to do with the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights than witch doctors, and just couldn’t be thought of as some kind of ideological voodoo thing.” He’s not saying what the song is about, his complaint has more to do with the feel of the production. Dylan adds, “I thought too highly of the expressive meaning behind the lyrics to bury them in some steamy cauldron of drum theory.” “Mississippi” is a declaration, no doubt, but one only tied to the story of America because it deals with such universal themes.
So, what then is he singing about and for god’s sake who is Rosie?
“Mississippi” is a personal commentary by an ageing artist looking back on his career and ahead to the future, both of which feel like the abyss. It’s classically non-linear with who and what he’s talking about changing from line to line and verse to verse. It reads like an open letter to his supporters, his critics, himself, and his muse. Dylan once said that being an artist means living in a constant state of becoming. Look forward. Don’t look back. But now comes a time when the inexplicable and mysterious wellspring of creativity has run dry. In “Visions of Johanna” he sees the ghosts of electricity howling in the bones of Louise’s face, now he sees them in the mirror. Then comes a familiar spark. Dylan is back and he’s calling his shot. Things should start to get interesting right about now.
Dylan first recorded “Mississippi” in 1997 during the Time Out of Mind sessions. There is no doubt that this period marked a return to form and the album would be his first of original material since 1990’s poorly received Under the Red Sky. The intervening years saw Dylan release two albums of folk and old timey covers and by all accounts he wrote no original material.
I like those albums. At a moment when Dylan was lacking in inspiration, he returned once again to the songs and themes that had shaped him. To produce the classic trio of albums that came next, he needed to get back the heart of it all and rebuild. But when he put pen to paper on “Mississippi”, Dylan’s career was in limbo. It had been eight years since his rightfully acclaimed Oh Mercy and while the Never-Ending Tour was chugging toward its second decade, Dylan was out of the public consciousness and artistically adrift. This is the context in which “Mississippi” was written. Unsatisfied with the production, Dylan scuttled the track and it never made it onto Time Out of Mind.
But four years later he dusts it off and gives it new life. By the time Love and Theft comes out and the public hears Dylan sing the rerecorded “Mississippi” for the first time (Cheryl Crow covered it in 1998), he’s coming off a Grammy for album of the year, and an Oscar for best original song. Dylan’s change in circumstance between writing “Mississippi” and finally releasing it is the key to unpacking its meaning.
Returning to the production for a moment, the biggest difference between the Lanois versions and the final album version is a lack of humor. The Lanois cuts are all atmosphere. Swampy and mournful. Revisiting the song a few years later Dylan strips it down and lightens it up. Now it has swagger. Things did get interesting and there is more to come. And while there is no doubt some dark themes at play here what with the sky full of fire and all, the Love and Theft version allows Dylan to be freer with his delivery which in turn brings out the song’ irreverence. You can almost picture his half-smile as he delivers some of these lines.
It’s well documented that Dylan likely got the inspiration for the line Stayed in Mississippi a day too long from an old Parchman Farm Prison song recorded by Alan Lomax. Among the recordings Lomax made at the prison is another song called “Rosie” with the same chorus.
Dylan seizes on the imagery of being trapped. His prison is an artistic wilderness, with critics and the buying public standing guard. Mississippi in this context is not a place, it’s an idea, a state of mind, a symbol for being stuck, which is how he opens…..
Every step of the way we walk the line Your days are numbered, so are mine Time is pilin' up, we struggle and we scrape We're all boxed in, nowhere to escape
A Johnny Cash reference perhaps, but more important is the context established by these first lines. The song is about Dylan, but he’s connecting this particular feeling of being trapped with that which we all experience at one time or another. We’re trying to walk the line, do what were supposed to do, but at the expense of the freedom that comes from blazing our own trail. And all the while we hear the ticking clock of mortality.
City's just a jungle, more games to play Trapped in the heart of it, trying to get away I was raised in the country, I been workin' in the town I been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down Got nothing for you, I had nothing before Don't even have anything for myself anymore
We’ve got jungle, city, country and town here, with the briefest of biographies and a playful nod to the various good trouble he’s gotten himself into (going electric, going gospel, going with unattributed lyrics, etc). The city/town reference could also be a reflection on his influences. Raised on folk, old European ballads, early country, and blues and now firmly playing his brand of rock and roll. I think the city/jungle here is the industry.
Throughout his career Dylan experienced disillusionment with the record business. Despite the success of Oh Mercy this was not a time when he was particularly supported by his label. He’s got nothing left for them and he seems to fault them for bleeding his artistry to the point where he’s struggling to do what has always come naturally, write songs for himself.
Sky full of fire, pain pourin’ down
Nothing you can sell me, I’ll see you around
 Listen to Dylan elongate the word ‘long’ in the final album version. He draws it out for a couple extra beats. It’s subtle but changes the energy of that important line making it both more vulnerable and lighter in tone. It may have felt long for the fans, but it felt looooong for him!