“Mississippi” (1996)

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Mississippi” is one of my favorite Dylan songs.  I love the tone of his voice and the atmosphere it creates.  I somewhat playfully imagine that the speaker is Odysseus.  I think the song can be interpreted that way with a little stretching.  Odysseus has a knack for staying too long in places in The Odyssey, namely with Calypso and Circe:

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

The verse with the “star“/”are” rhyme works with The Odyssey as well if you want to let it.  Though Odysseus crosses the “wine-dark sea” to wind up with Nausicaa, a river is impressive enough to get to where you want to be with someone:

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

 That southern star also could be someone like Charlie Patton or Jimmie Rodgers, but if it’s a celestial one it could be the one over Ithaca, south of many of the places Odysseus stayed too long.

The lines that rhyme “fast” with “past” in “Mississippi” hit home the mythological reference to Odysseus in The Odyssey:

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

Odysseus’s ship is split to splinters in Book 12:

Zeus with thunder and lightning together crashed on our vessel,

and, struck by the thunderbolt of Zeus, she spun in a circle,

and all was full of brimstone. My men were thrown in the water,

and bobbing like sea crows they were washed away on the running

waves all around the black ship, and the god took away their homecoming.

Holding onto what’s left of the ship, Odysseus arrives on the island of Calypso, where he eventually sets sail on a raft and winds up on the shores of Phaecia where he is stripped to nothing, even clothes.  It is here that he must feel that the past he wishes to return to, his home in Ithaka, where he is king, is lost.  Dylan,  conversely, as any study of his life will show, has tried to escape from his past, even lying about it to erase it, “pure hokum–hophead talk,” he calls it in Chronicles.

What Odysseus and Dylan have in common though are women who have come on the scene to save them.  For Odysseus, when he arrives on the shores of Phaecia, Nausicaa, the daughter of the king and queen, pulls him out of the emotional depths (sinkin fast), guiding him to what results in his return home (nostos).  Dylan’s savior women, Suze, Joan, Sara, Carolyn all have, in some way, pulled him out of one phase into another, pulled him out of a sinkin into a past that is a kind of death, one that would end his knack or talent for shape-shifting, from one music to another, one sound to another, one image to another, one personna, etc.

The ancient Greek myth of Nausicaa, by the way, has morphed into Japanese pop culture in the form of a protector of the environment.  As such, she protects our past, the one where nature is not violated, kept unharmed by human greed.  Some things, perhaps the myth and Dylan are telling us, should never become past, never even come to the point of sinkin fast.

The “said“/”bed” rhyme in “Mississippi” is the opposite of an illogical eye rhyme, one that has words that look like they should rhyme but don’t, like “cough”/dough”  “said” does not look like it rhymes with “bed” but it does, confirmed only through speech.  Likewise, dreams are not reality, and so dreaming of sleeping in Rosie’s bed is one thing:

I was thinkin’ ’bout the things that Rosie said
I was dreaming I was sleepin’ in Rosie’s bed

The reality another.  Of course, thinking can lead to dreaming. Rosie’s words stirred up in the mind can jingle a dream that puts the dreamer smack dab in her bed.  The voice and the physical strange bed partners? Not in this song where staying one day too long can make you hear and dream things that later on you might say, that was the one thing I did wrong.

Again, Odysseus knows a thing or two about staying too long.  The day he does so with the Sun-god he falls asleep (dreaming of Circe? Calypso?) and while he does, his men eat the Sun-god’s sacred cows as depicted in this painting by Johannus Stradanus:

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“Mississippi” ends with the message, “You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way.” Odysseus’ men pay for their forbidden act with their lives, Odysseus for his sleep with the loss of his men.  Yes, you can go back but not all the way back, as you thought of, maybe dreamed.  Dreams do affect reality, as do rhymes about saying and sleeping.

This song slept for six years before it was released on Love and Theft in 2002, and stayed unperformed way too long until Bob sang it in Oregon on October 9, 2001.  Here’s audio of that live performance.


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