One more day in Mississippi part 2

Previously: One More Day in Mississippi part 1

Looking line by line at Dylan’s third act masterpiece

by Christopher Deutsch

All my powers of expression and thoughts so sublime
Could never do you justice in reason or rhyme

Dylan’s singing to what he refers to on Rough and Rowdy Ways as the Mother of Muses. He captures the frustration of an artist who’s lost it and isn’t sure he’ll get it back. It feels like Armageddon to the artist who told us, “He not busy being born is busy dying.” I love the last couplet here. He’s well attuned to what he can do, and in this moment, he’s convinced it isn’t enough.

Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long

 Out first pass through the chorus.

In “Every Grain of Sand”, Dylan sang that he doesn’t “have the inclination to look back on any mistake.” This felt true at the time but a few years later and he’s lamenting the lost songwriting years of the early and mid-nineties. He’s expressed how difficult this period was and even with the triumph of Oh Mercy, he was clearly searching as far back as Empire Burlesque (the list of co-writers and covers on Knocked Out Loaded and Down in the Groove is a giveaway). It’s as if he emerged from his Christian period reborn but unsure of himself. He’s the rare ageing icon with plenty more to say but for the first time trying to adapt to the world around him instead of insisting on his terms. Here he’s acknowledging his missteps. But there’s confidence too. It was only one day too long!

Well, the devil's in the alley, mule's in the stall
Say anything you want to, I have heard it all

I was thinkin' about the things that Rosie said
I was dreaming I was sleeping in Rosie's bed

 Ah, Rosie. So much has been made of Rosie. As mentioned, having heard the Alan Lomax Parchman Farm recordings he would have heard the Rosie version. And he’s thinking about it. This whole sequence has a beautiful stream of conscious feel, and he delivers this last line with a wink. We can’t take every Dylan line too seriously.

Walking through the leaves, falling from the trees
Feeling like a stranger nobody sees

So many things that we never will undo
I know you're sorry, I'm sorry too

 I wonder here if he’s speaking to his audience. They aren’t blameless and it’s been a rocky relationship, but he’s willing to set it all aside.

 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

Well, I got here following the southern star
I crossed that river just to be where you are

Leaving Minnesota, Dylan would have crossed the Mississippi River on his way to New York. This is a nice play on the upcoming reference to Mississippi. He followed his muse to the center of it all. On Street Legal he tells us, “Sacrifice was the code of the road.” It’s applicable here too. He blazed a trail that took him to the mountaintop, only to later find himself in the (Mississippi) valley.

Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long

Well my ship's been split to splinters and it's sinking fast
I'm drownin' in the poison, got no future, got no past

Dylan’s been broken down, but there is a freedom to this annihilation. No future expectation. No past to live up to.[2] The reference to poison recalls “Pledging My Time” and his poison headache. That may have been an artful description of a hangover…here perhaps he’s alluding to his problematic alcohol use during this period (he reportedly quit drinking in 1994). But the next line is upbeat. This emptiness is liberating…

But my heart is not weary, it's light and it's free
I've got nothin' but affection for all those who've sailed with me

Dylan’s hurt at being disparaged for his Christian output was revealing. He has spoken and written about his appreciation for those who stuck with him. He comes out and says it here.

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 interesting right about now

 Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, and Modern Times are now considered a classic Dylan trio of albums that ushered in a new era of cultural relevance and praise. He couldn’t have known all that was coming but he did know he was writing important songs again. Like the first jolt forward of a car that’s been stuck in a ditch, it won’t be smooth. But it will be interesting. I love that he doesn’t say things could get interesting. He’s more certain than that.

My clothes are wet, tight on my skin
Not as tight as the corner that I painted myself in

 He’s remarkably candid. He knows perfectly well where he stands, what’s being said about him.

I know that fortune is waitin' to be kind
So give me your hand and say you'll be mine

Well, the emptiness is endless, cold as the clay
You can always come back, but you can't come back all the way

 These contradictory lines show the range of feeling at play. Fortune is waiting to be kind and yet the emptiness is endless. He’s thinking about his own mortality and legacy. There’s the sly reference to a career comeback but he’s also recognizing that a piece of him is in everything he’s done. He can come back but not all the way, not whole, not the way he was before. This line takes on potent new meaning as we continue our slow creep back to normalcy only to discover that things will never be the same.

Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long

Dylan wrote these words when he was approaching sixty and at a crossroads. That picture he paints of feeling boxed in and stuck is particularly resonant now. But there is a sense of hope in “Mississippi”. The mistakes or missteps are in the past. It’s time to bite down and swallow hard. Dig in and chase the muse. Perhaps my sense of this song is colored by the last two years of isolation and uncertainty, but that’s what makes Dylan’s art so compelling. It transcends time and circumstance, so much so that its meaning becomes deeply personal. He speaks for us and with us. At this point it feels like we’ve all stayed in Mississippi a day too long. The question is, upon our return, what comes next?

___________

[2] Dylan returns to the ship metaphor twenty years later on “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’” where he sings about love and mortality. “Well, my ship is in the harbor and the sails are spread.” The ship, his heart, has found home and there is peace and comfort in the moment.

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