In the Uncut interviews, Malcolm Burn says: “I really got the strong impression that, for him, the song really wasn’t ready to be a song until the lyrics were in place.” On the topic of Mississippi, I think we have one of those songs whose lyrics have that strength peculiar to Dylan, where they offer different visions when set into different melodies: they don’t simply offer a different aural color, a different tone, different kinds of musical pleasure. Like something under ultraviolet or infrared light, when it becomes visible, and was not visible under ordinary light.
I hear Mississippi as a song of the rhythms of a life, which is of course the heart of so much of his later work. Appetite and weariness, memory and desire, restlessness and torpor–these are the forces in TOOM, L&T, Modern Times. Mississippi seems to me to present them with special clarity. The lyrics have that great wit, that vision that brings us all in: my days are numbered as well as those of the majestic old rasper singing of his own life; we’re all moving, if we’re not already there–and of course we aren’t. We all got to move, not just the singer whose only mistake is that he screwed up his own conviction here–he thought he was Already There, and stayed a day too long. So he keeps moving, even though his ship’s been split to splinters–even though he can’t save himself from drowning in the poison where there’s no past to help you make sense of the present, or give you the consolation of memories, and no future to look towards and live for. He’s going down but not in bitterness–he’s gracing his fellow sailors with gratitude and compassion. Those who’ve sailed with us, loyal and much loved companions.
The different versions of the song, the different musical life of the songs, I think give different pictures of the compassion, the tension between going-on and staying-put, the energy of the river that runs through the song. I wrote above about favoring the mighty Miss. of L&T at first, over the disc 1 version. I heard too much Lotus Land in disc 1, too much of a feeling of relief, it seemed, when the ship goes down. I hear that in the fine laziness of the guitar, the delicious swelling languor of the performance. This river is very much about dreamin’ he’s sleepin’ in Rosie’s bed.
Disc 2: sly, dry, and wise. The voice is closer to the earth, listen how he picks out “if they ain’t already there” with an edge at every word, listen to the hiss at the end of “emptiness is endlessssss.” There’s a confidence and a sharpness to this voice, not a languor. Whatever he did wrong in Mississippi, it was really wrong, and probably pretty good. The weariness here is like one of those guiltless hangovers that’s a souvenir of a hell of a good time. Say anything you want to, I have heard it all–this voice really gets that line home. The instruments cut through the vocal with more sharpness also. On this river, you see the sun glinting off the water.
Disc 3: Whole different song. Lover’s lament. What he doesn’t have isn’t for us, it’s for her. The day too long is what’s keeping him from…her. He doesn’t know or care where we’re all moving now, because she’s there and he’s not. The compassion, the benevolence is not the key here, this voice is soaring with its gorgeous pain, it is one of Bob’s great tragic vocals. This is the bluesiest version, and every line is pitched at an intensity of feeling, a romanticism, that I don’t hear in the other 3 versions. L&T is incendiary in its urgency and rawness, not the same as the eroticism in this performance. Wonderful blues lines from the guitar. All the tensions of the lyrics are united in the lover’s grief. The changed lyrics are important–the world is tearing itself apart because in his grief his eyes see only more grief, this is not the same as the universal vision of the other versions.
So, not just 4 different sounds, but 4 different lives. I no longer have a favorite.