The lyrics and the music: “Mississippi”

“The Lyrics and the Music” is a series by Tony Attwood which tries to find out what happens when one reviews a Dylan song not primarily as a set of lyrics, but as a piece of music which includes lyrics.   An updated list of previous articles in the series is given at the end.

There is a level of tired resignation in Mississippi both in the lyrics and the music that really comes across in this first version.  Indeed the chorus line reflects this perfectly:

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

Musically it is put across by that slow swing to the music and the simplicity of the accompaniment.  The percussion part can hardly be heard, in this version it is a simple beat suggesting that no matter what, time moves on.

But what is so wonderful here is that the music can reflect the opening line of tired resignation without putting us off listening.  We are pulled forward, wanting to know more despite that opening.

Every step of the way we walk the line
Your days are numbered, so are mine

Indeed multiple lines in this song reflect tiredness and resignation, and those are two feelings that really are hard to put across in music without making the audience feel bored.   We can take songs about another person’s sadness.  But this is six minutes of personal resignation.  How can that be kept going?

There are moments of course where the music raises itself up a little – not to anger but more to angst – just saying “well, that’s life for you.”   And this is emphasised as instead of coming straight back into the next verse we get a pause where the music is just sitting on one chord

Got nothing for you, I had nothing before
Don’t even have anything for myself anymore

If we were listening to this for the first time we might think that this is the moment when the music is about to take off.  Indeed a lesser composer might have introduced a sudden burst of sound here especially as the lyrics continue

Sky full of fire, pain pourin’ down

But no, the music stays in its place, plodding along, but never dull or boring even though we hear there is “Nothing you can sell me, I’ll see you around”.

So how does Dylan stop the plod of the music in this initial version from becoming tedious, as anything “plodding” normally is?  If you listen to the “got nothing for you” lines you’ll find the guitar part does something quite unexpected.  It alternates going up and down before rising up to emphasise the hopelessness of “see you around”.

In the breaks between the verses the guitar starts out by playing the melody but then reverts to accompaniment.   It leaves the listener slightly uncertain, and this uncertainty is emphasised by the totally unexpected pause between the verses.  If you listen from 1’54” onwards there is an instrumental break which seems to stop, on one chord waiting for the verse to begin again, but it doesn’t.  We get two and a half bars of music where absolutely nothing is happening except this chord is strummed before Bob comes back in with…

Well, the devil’s in the alley, mule’s in the stall
Say anything you wanna, I have heard it all

It is an utterly remarkable piece of composing, and I doubt any other composer of contemporary song has ever tried it, or indeed ever would try it, because every producer would instantly say, “You’re losing your audience”.

But this is untrue because that pause where nothing happens totally reflects where the singer’s life is.  And if that pause were not sublime enough we then get

Well, the devil’s in the alley, mule’s in the stall
Say anything you wanna, I have heard it all

In fact the lyrics upon their return reflect exactly what we felt with that pause.  Nothing matters.  This is how it is.  There’s nothing I can do.

This is in fact a preparation musically for another of the killer lines in the song

Feeling like a stranger nobody sees

And if ever there was a way of singing, a melody line or a musical accompaniment that reflected that line, this is it.   This is absolute resignation to the fact that

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

Now of course there is change going on around us all the time, and this time as the music starts to rise Dylan agrees that

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

But that is as far as he can raise himself for then we slip back down.   He has made an effort in the past…

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

but as we know he got distracted on the journey.

The point is that the singer is not angry, he is not accusing anyone, which is why this gentle limiting music works so perfectly.   He might be drowning in the poison, as we all effectively are,

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

And it is because of all this musical preparation in which we are carried along with the lyrics, just observing the world, not part of it any more that we can accept within these easy-flowing moments that

Things should start to get interesting right about now

With a line like that many lesser composers would be tempted to start changing the gentle lilting music but not Bob because he has the final twist for us.  Yes the world has gone very wrong, so how can the music be so gentle, how can he still have affection for all those who he has known?

And this is where we get the jolt.   The music stays the same and when we hear

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

We are tempted to think, so this is what it was all about… this gentle floating music carrying us toward that moment.  But no, the meaning of the music is what we heard at the start… it goes on and on, but that doesn’t mean that everything is ok.   Just drifting on and on has its downside too because…

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

… because emptiness is gentle, because there is no change.  The melody can be lilting, and the fact that it runs on and on gives us a sort of feeling that all is well, but maybe that is not all there is….

Of course none of this means that just because Bob composed it that way he doesn’t try and make the song into something else.  In the second recording below he was exploring where else this could go, and in the live performances he took this much, much further.

The resignation that was there in the original version still shines through in the version below, although (sadly from my perspective) by the time the song hit the stage it was becoming something else.   And maybe that was right.  Maybe such a long gentle piece in front of an audience known for making a lot of noise, the song just wouldn’t work.  So it changed.   But we do still have the original to marvel over, and of course the version that was originally released.

The lyrics and the music: the series…


  1. There ain’t but the one thing that I done wrong
    Stayed in Mississippi just a day too long
    Day too long, Lordy, day too long
    (Rosie O Ho ~ traditional)

  2. White light, white light going, messing up my mind
    White light, and don’t you know it’s gonna make you go blind
    (Velvet Underground: White Light ~ Lou Reed)

    I need something to distract my mind
    I’m gonna look at you ’til my my eyes go blind
    (Bob Dylan: Mississippi)

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