Dylan’s Late-Career Classics: Mississippi

Stayed in (the) Mississippi Too Long

On May 8, 1541, explorer and conquistador Hernando de Soto became one of the first Europeans to reach the Mississippi River. A little more than a year later on May 21, 1542, still on a search for silver and gold in what would become the southern U.S., de Soto died from a fever on the banks of the Mississippi River. His men, not wanting the Native Americans to discover that de Soto was not divine, buried his body in the river.

Blinded by his search for precious metals, the Spaniard could not have foreseen the real value of the water with a name that came from an Ojibwe word for “Great River.” And de Soto could not have predicted that a state would take its name from the river.  And he would not know that it all eventually would lead one of the land’s greatest songwriters, born in a state that hosts the headwaters of the mighty river, to use “Mississippi” as the title of one of his late career classics.

Bob Dylan’s “Mississippi”

We continue our series on Bob Dylan’s Late Career Classics with a listen to “Mississippi,” from Love and Theft (2001). Dylan continues to write outstanding songs, but in this series we consider songs that are classics in the sense they are not only identified with Dylan but appear in excellent cover versions, much like many songs from his early catalog.

I am not the only fan of Dylan’s “Mississippi.” Rolling Stone has proclaimed that “Mississippi” is the seventeenth best song of the 2000s, comparing it favorably with Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue.” Further, the magazine ranks it 260th out of the greatest songs of all time.

Dylan must have sensed something special in the song because he made several versions of the song while trying to get it right. He initially recorded it for Time Out of Mind (1997).  But he eventually left it off that album because he did not like Daniel Lanois’ arrangement.

So “Mississippi” first appeared on an official release several years later on Love and Theft. Here is Bob Dylan performing the song live in 2002.

Sheryl Crow’s Cover

Because of the delay in Dylan releasing his own version, someone else released a cover version of “Mississippi” before Dylan released the song. Dylan first gave it to Sheryl Crow, who recorded it for her 1998 album The Globe Sessions.

In this video Sheryl Crow explains how Dylan contacted her to ask if she wanted to record the song:

Dylan’s Slow Acoustic “Mississippi”

Dylan has released alternate versions of “Mississippi.” For my money, the best version is Dylan’s slower acoustic performance of “Mississippi.” This version leads off Dylan’s 2008 album of late-career lost songs and alternate takes, Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8, which as a 2-CD set included two versions of the song and as a 3-CD expensive deluxe version included three “Mississippi’s.”

There are a few good covers of this slower version, including one from “Blues From a Hammock.” And in this cover, Scottish singer-songwriter Rob Naokes does nice job covering the wonderful acoustic version.

Other artists have performed the song too. The Dixie Chicks, like Crow, make a rocking version of the song:

What is “Mississippi” Really About?

Many have speculated about the meaning of Dylan’s “Mississippi.” One writer claimed the song is influenced by the poetry of Henry Rollins. Rolling Stone claims it is “both a romantic promise and a hint of doom.”

The lyrics reveal past regrets (“So many things that we never will undo / I know you’re sorry, I’m sorry too”). But at the same time, there are moments of humor and hope (“I know that fortune is waiting to be kind / So give me your hand and say you’ll be mine”).

The singer recalls there is only one thing he did wrong, he “stayed in Mississippi a day too long.” Yet, what happened in Mississippi remains a mystery to the listener.

Dylan knows that sometimes it is best to let the listener fill in the blanks. “Mississippi’s” magic is in one’s imagination, more powerful than the imaginary gold and silver that led de Soto to his grave in the great river.

What do you think “Mississippi” is about? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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