For much of the 1980s, it seemed like Bob Dylan was writing for Bob Dylan. His lyrics, which used to resonate with so many, were now largely appreciated by hardcore fans only.
Oh Mercy’s humbled, wizened love songs began to change all that, but relatively few people heard them, as Dylan’s reputation for disappointing albums prevented many from giving them a fair shake. 1997’s exceedingly somber Time Out of Mind was when Dylan’s critical re-branding really got underway, but it was mostly cats Bob’s age who could appreciate its senior moments.
But with 2001’s Love and Theft, with the whole world feeling at odds with its strange new future, suddenly Bob was writing in a language that was meaningful to the masses again. Love and Theft was written in an updated version of that old, weird American language, and the dense lyrics resonated with a collective past we had collectively forgotten. Something was happening here, and we all knew what it was. Bob Dylan was back in action.
One of the greatest songs on Love and Theft, an album full of them, is “Mississippi.” It’s a gateway into the new Dylan, a portal. Stay in Mississippi a day too long and you too will understand. There are no real standout lines, but collectively, they all create a work of art that can be admired from many angles: “some people will offer you their hand and some won’t, last night I knew you, tonight I don’t.” “I was raised in the country, I been workin’ in the town, I been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down.” Dylan’s ragged, old man voice perfectly nails the regret and acceptance implicit in the lyrics. How many of love’s lessons must you have learned when you’re a 60 year old traveling troubadour? Quite a few, it turns out.
“Mississippi” is one for the history books — multiple versions of the song (each with different lyrics) are presented on The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs, giving Dylanologists plenty to chew over. Interestingly enough, the person who first introduced the world to the song was Sheryl Crow, who recorded it on her 1998 album The Globe Sessions.
As the story goes, Dylan called her up and offered the song to her on her 36th birthday. He also offered to have babies with her. Seriously. “You could take every line of that song and make a new song of it,” said Crow in an interview. Later, the Dixie Chicks made it a concert staple, staying close to Crow’s arrangement.
“Mississippi” reminds us that it’s a long way back to the early 60s, when Dylan sang about the state’s civil rights struggles in “Oxford Town,” “Only A Pawn In Their Game,” and “Emmett Till.” It also carries with it a promise; Dylan isn’t done yet. Just keep your ears open and you’ll learn some new tricks.
“Stick with me baby, stick with me anyhow,
things should start to get interesting right about now.”