On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast near New Orleans, Louisiana. The hurricane and its after effects devastated the city and surrounding areas along the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.
The following year, Bruce Springsteen visited New Orleans and performed his version of the song “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live.” He used the first verse from the original by Blind Alfred Reed. But then he added three new verses that focused on the situation in New Orleans.
Springsteen’s lyrics criticize the federal response to the emergency, invoking President George W. Bush‘s trip to the area: “He took a look around, gave a little pep talk, said ‘I’m with you’ then he took a little walk.” At his performance in New Orleans, he introduced the song with a reference to the “Bystander-in-Chief.”
Reed, who lived from 1880 to 1956, recorded his version in New York City on December 4, 1929, less than two months after the stock market crash. Check it out.
Ry Cooder also recorded a variation on Reed’s original version, releasing it on his self-titled album in 1970. Musically, one can hear how Cooder’s version apparently influenced Springsteen’s version. Check out this video of Cooder’s 1974 recording of “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live” at The Record Plant in Sausalito, California.
Unfortunately, it seems like we will always need songs like these. Fortunately, we have artists like Reed, Cooder, and Springsteen to keep challenging us.
Photo of Hurricane Katrina via NASA (Public Domain). Leave your two cents in the comments.
Steve Earle, no stranger to taking on social justice and political issues in his songs, recently performed a new song about Mississippi’s flag and the Confederate flag controversy. In “Mississippi, It’s Time,” he tells the Magnolia state it is time to take the Confederate battle flag out of the state’s flag (pictured above).
Below is his first public performance of the song at the New Glasgow Riverfront Jubilee in August 2015. “You can’t move ahead if you’re looking behind.”
September 10, 2015 Update: Steve Earle is officially releasing “Mississippi, It’s Time,” with the track hitting stores on September 11. Proceeds from the sale of the song will go to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Listen to the official recording of “Mississippi, It’s Time” by Steve Earle & The Dukes below.
Goodman and Schwerner had originally traveled from New York and were working with Chaney, a young black man who lived in Mississippi. One afternoon, after the three were driving back from investigating a church burning, Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price arrested them. The sheriff arrested the driver Chaney for speeding, and he arrested the passengers for “investigation.”
The sheriff took the three men to jail, where they were booked by 4:00 p.m. Late at night after almost seven hours at the jail, the three were released. Then, they disappeared.
Disappearance & Discovery
The disappearance of the three men created a national outcry, focusing attention on what was going on in many places in the South. Others previously had disappeared and been murdered. But this case likely garnered more attention because two of the civil rights workers were white.
Below is a 1964 NBC News Special Report about the disappearance that occurred during Freedom Summer. The show aired on television while the men were missing and before their bodies were found. As you can see, after the three disappeared, some white officials argued that the missing men were pulling a publicity stunt.
More than a month later on August 4, 1964, FBI officials found the remains of the three men buried in an earthen well. Goodman and Schwerner were each shot in the heart, while Chaney had been beaten and shot several times.
Investigators concluded that after authorities released the three civil rights workers from jail, KKK members pulled over the car. Then, the KKK members shot and killed the three men and also beat the African-American Chaney.
The murders had been planned and organized while the three men were held in jail. And, in fact, the KKK had been tracking Schwerner’s activities in the South for some time. Here is a shorter recent video about the case and the murders.
The country focused its attention on the murder, the investigation, and numerous other instances of violence during Freedom Summer. This national attention energized the civil rights movement, and helped bring about some changes.
“Here’s to the State of Mississippi”
The investigation into the case also affected pop culture. For example, the crime inspired a fictionalized account of the events in the movie Mississippi Burning (1988), starring Gene Hackman.
The murders also inspired singer-songwriter Phil Ochs to write one of his most controversial songs, “Here’s to the State of Mississippi.” Ochs came up with the idea for the song while he was traveling through Mississippi to promote voting registration with the Mississippi Caravan of Music.
During that trip, Ochs encountered threats firsthand and also learned about the discovery of the bodies of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. As a result, Ochs wrote one of his most scathing songs, indicting the state of Mississippi as a proxy for the perpetrators of racial violence.
Oh, here’s to the land You’ve torn out the heart of, Mississippi find yourself Another country to be part of.
According to Michael Schumacher’s excellent 1996 biography of Ochs, There But for Fortune: The Life of Phil Ochs, some of Ochs’s friends criticized the song for attacking Mississippi so directly. They told Ochs that he was wrong to single out a single state because racism flowed across all states, including ones in the North.
Also, some blacks in Mississippi reminded Ochs that they were a part of Mississippi too. But Ochs believed it was his obligation to report what he saw.
Quest for Justice
While the murders motivated many people to work for change, it took longer for the state of Mississippi to accomplish some individual justice. In 1967 a federal court jury convicted several men of conspiracy for their involvement in the murders. But Mississippi did not convict anyone for the crime until June 21, 2005 — the 41st anniversary of the day the three young men disappeared.
On that date in 2005, a Mississippi jury convicted white supremacist Edgar Ray Killen of three counts of manslaughter. Killen was sentenced to sixty years in prison.
Although authorities did not believe Killen did the actual killing, they thought he was a significant organizer of the murders. It had been the policy of the KKK for organizers and leaders to avoid actual killing.
It is too bad that Phil Ochs, who passed away in 1976, was not around to see the conviction. I wonder what type of songs Ochs would write if he were still alive. And I also wonder what the three brave men who were killed in 1964 would think of our country today.
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.
Jurors had acquitted the two white men, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, of the 1955 kidnapping and murder of Till. But after the acquittal, in the magazine article, Bryant and Milam described the killing.
After beating and shooting Till, they used barbed wire to tie a heavy cotton gin fan around his neck to weigh down his body when they threw him in the Tallahatchie River.
Throughout the ordeal, the two men could not break the spirit of the teenager. Till maintained that he was as good as them and that he had dated white women.
Till was a 14-year-old African-American teenager from Chicago. Prior to his death, he was visiting Mississippi relatives in 1955.
In Money, Mississippi, he went to Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market to buy some candy. Reportedly, while he was in the store, the teen either whistled at or requested a date from Carolyn Bryant, who ran the store with her husband Roy, who was out of town.
As word spread around town about the incident, the husband Roy Bryant returned to town and contacted his half-brother J.W. Miliam. A few days after the encounter in the store between Till and Byrant’s wife, Miliam and Bryant abducted Till from his great-uncle’s home. Three days later Till’s body was found in the river.
Authorities arrested Miliam and Bryant, who were tried and acquitted by an all-white all-male jury. Many were outraged with the acquittal, and some credit the events with helping inspire the Civil Rights Movement.
The events also inspired a young Bob Dylan to write about the Till in the song “The Death of Emmett Till.” He performed the song on a radio program in 1962, explaining the tune came from a song by folk-musician Len Chandler.
On the March 11, 1962 radio show, the host flattered the young Dylan’s skills. But Dylan responded, “I just wrote that one about last week, I think.”
Relatively consistent with Dylan’s comments, in Keys to the Rain: The Definitive Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, Oliver Trager reports that the 22-year-old Dylan wrote the song around February 1962. That date means it is one of the first songs Dylan ever wrote. Trager also suggests that Emmett Till’s death may have affected Dylan because they were born only months apart.
Although Dylan initially was proud of “The Death of Emmett Till,” he later seemed embarrassed by its literalness. He claimed he was just trying to write about something topical. He even went further and said that it was a “bullshit song.”
It’s true that the song does not rise to the poetic level of the more brilliant similarly themed song, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” But “The Death of Emmett Till” was a good start for the young songwriter, and it helped highlight a great injustice.