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.

  • YouTube Covers: Bob Dylan’s “Red River Shore” Edition
  • Dylan’s Late-Career Classics: Not Dark Yet
  • The Death of Emmett Till
  • Dylan’s Late Career Classics: Make You Feel My Love
  • October 1992: They Were So Much Older Then
  • Bob Dylan Croons “I Could Have Told You”
  • (Some related Chimesfreedom posts.)

    YouTube Covers: Bob Dylan’s “Red River Shore” Edition

    When I purchased Tell Tale Signs: the Bootleg Series Vol. 8 (2008), the Bob Dylan CD that features unreleased songs from the time period of his more recent albums, the song “Red River Shore” stood out immediately as I played the CD in my car. I kept playing the song over and over again, barely getting to anything else on the CD. It is another example of a great song that Dylan originally decided to leave off an album he was making. At least they eventually get released. The music is great, as are the beautiful lyrics of loss.

    Now I’m wearing the cloak of misery
    And I’ve tasted jilted love
    And the frozen smile upon my face
    Fits me like a glove
    But I can’t escape from the memory
    Of the one that I’ll always adore
    All those nights when I lay in the arms
    Of the girl from the Red River shore

    Some writers have wondered if the girl from the Red River shore is the same person as was featured in Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm,” as in this piece on Gardener is Gone. Some have found religious overtones in the song, such as in Songs for the Journey, with some arguing that the song is about Dylan’s relationship with Christ.

    At first, I was interested that there might be a hidden meaning in the song. Of course, Dylan is Dylan and one may never know his intent, but on further listening I think those claiming religious meaning are wrong. The song is what it appears to be: a song about loss and memory. And while the final verse does have a reference to Jesus, it’s a statement that in today’s modern world, we unfortunately cannot count on God to undo what is lost. “He knew how to bring ’em on back to life/ Well, I don’t know what kind of language he used/ Or if they do that kind of thing anymore /Sometimes I think nobody ever saw me here at all/ ‘Cept the girl from the Red River shore.”

    There are few Dylan videos on the Internet, and none of this song that I can find. Although covers rarely match the original, I am intrigued by the number of people who have the guts to play a song and post it on YouTube. There are some nice covers of this song on YouTube. Here’s a good one by a German band called CCC Inc. It takes awhile for them to get to the song, though (around the 2:00 mark).

    This video of Henry Lim looks very professional, and it has nice instrumentation. Lim is the technical services assistant for the UCLA Music Library, and he has a busy extracurricular life. He has covered other artists like Radiohead with his string quartet, and he is an artist with Legos.

    There are some good versions in the “dude with a guitar” category, such as a nice one by Kevin Magoon, who also adds a little electronic drum. C22romero does a nice job on the song too, but maybe he should turn down the reverb a little. I wish Chris Pap below would focus the camera, but he does a nice quiet version of the song below.

    Perhaps because of the viewpoint of the lyrics, almost all of the covers are by men. But here is one by Linda Kosut performing in California.

    After this post was initially published, singer-songwriter Jimmy LaFave covered “Red River Shore” on his album, Depending on the Distance (2012). Below is the excellent version from that album.

    In another video after this post’s original publication, an artist named Kape does a nice version too. I cannot find much about him from the Internet, but he appears to be from Sweden.

    Finally, my favorite cover may be this version of “Red River Shore” by lornisply with a guy playing an electric piano in his home. He has a good voice and seems to connect to the song. And there is something about the simple weariness of the performance of the melancholy song that makes it believable.

    I know nobody matches the Bob Dylan version, but which cover version do you like best? Leave a comment.