The emptiness is endless
Cold as the clay
You can always come back
But you can't come back all the way
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Longwood, antebellum plantation home in Natchez, Mississippi
(Library of Congress)
Mississippi is an Ojibwe word meaning "Great River" – a fitting name for the southern State which sprawls to the east of the eponymous Mississippi River. The State is perhaps most well known for its bayous and catfish, as well as its historical production of cotton in the fertile Delta and Black Belt regions. During the 19th Century, plantation owners became extremely wealthy largely due to the hard work of black slaves. In 1861, Mississippi became the second state to declare its secession from the Union and was one of the founding members of the Confederate States of America. In the wake of the Civil War, Mississippi underwent major reconstruction. However socio-economic change wasn't welcomed by all. During the 20th Century Civil Rights Movement, Mississippi frequently made headlines, thanks to the Ku Klux Klan's violent reaction to changing racial attitudes. Mississippi was dubbed a reactionary state, and it wasn't until 1995 that the state symbolically ratified the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery.
Despite the violence and racial antagonism, musicians from the Delta region were instrumental in the development of blues. Although many Mississippi musicians migrated to Chicago after the devastating effects of a boll weevil crop infestation, those who stayed, like Jimmie Rodgers, endeavored to create an integrated musical community in what was then considered the most racist state in America. Today, Mississippi remains a musical hub, particularly for blues music, with multiple bars, clubs, and even museums dedicated to the genre. Elvis Presley, B.B. King, and Muddy Waters, as well as newer artists like LeAnn Rimes and Faith Hill all hail from Mississippi.
Bob Dylan grew up as Robert Zimmerman in Minnesota, far from the bayous of the Mississippi. Although Dylan had no significant ties to the Deep South, Dylan was a prominent figure during the Civil Rights movement. His 31st studio album, Love and Theft
, released in 2001, bears tribute to the South, with its second song aptly named “Mississippi.” The entire album pays homage to the South's racial history and includes “High Water” – a song written for Charley Patton – hailing the artist as both an unsung blues hero and symbol of both the region's social injustices and cultural richness. “Mississippi” was originally recorded for the 1997 album Time Out of Mind
but didn't make the final selection. The song was originally offered to Sheryl Crow for her 1998 record The Globe Sessions
, although this pop version bears little resemblance to Dylan's 2001 version, which features chord progressions reminiscent of the blues. The Dixie Chicks also borrowed the song, making it a staple in their live shows.
In 2009, Rolling Stone
named "Mississippi" the 17th best song of the decade and ranked it No. 260 on their 500 Greatest Songs of All Time chart. Love and Theft
peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 despite generating quite a lot of controversy. The "theft" in the title seems particularly fitting, as many claimed that Dylan had plagiarized lyrics, stealing from Junichi Saga's novel Confessions of a Yakuza
. Saga considered this "borrowing" an honor and no charges were ever formally brought against Dylan.Love and Theft
presents a portrait of southern life, bringing home the darker aspects of the region's history with a liberal dose of wry humor. While “Mississippi” may not be the song for which Bob Dylan will be remembered, it is certainly a song worthy of attention, reminding a new generation of the often bloody history of a region whose musicians' indomitable spirits helped change the racial landscape of an era.
~ Suzanne van Rooyen
Suzanne is a tattooed storyteller from South Africa. She currently lives in Finland and finds the cold, dark forests nothing if not inspiring. Although she has a Master’s degree in music, Suzanne prefers conjuring strange worlds and creating quirky characters. Her published novels include
Dragon's Teeth, Obscura Burning, and
The Other Me. When not writing, she teaches dance and music to middle schoolers and eats far too much peanut-butter.
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