What Is It That Makes a Dylan Performance Special? My #1 Reason.
Jackson County Fairgrounds
9 October 2001
I'll tell you a story about this song. Here we have Dylan's first live performance of the song. It is not often that you can watch a World Premier of a Dylan song with a video this good, in spite of its brief dropout in the middle of the video.
My Dylan buddy, Shasta Bates, posted this performance on his Facebook wall on 7 May 2011, saying "Gotta post this again! So cool!" It was the last Dylan song he ever posted. On 19 May 2011 he posted, "I'll be playing at Bobby's Idle Hour tonight around 10 pm with Tom Rogers." Eight days later he had a heart attack after performing at a club in Nashville that night and we lost him. Now he lives in our hearts and our memories.
Shasta had excellent taste in music, a longtime Bobcat and taper. When he said a performance was cool, he was usually right!!
"Every step of the way we walk the line
Your days are numbered, so are mine
Time is pilin’ up, we struggle and we scrape
We’re all boxed in, nowhere to escape"
Back in the day, I would go visit Shasta and as soon as I walked in the door, he'd say, "Oh great, hey you gotta hear this. I just got it!" And he'd proceed to play some new cool Bob performance he had received. He always had something he was excited about. Or I'd call him on the phone and tell him about something I just discovered.
So I'm gonna write what I would be telling him tonight, if he were still around. . .
Here's how I rediscovered this cool Dylan performance of "Mississippi."
A blogger had posted about a collection of women who had done some Dylan covers. I thought Susan Tedeschi was the best of the lot. Patti Smith, one of my favorites, was also there, but the article featured the wrong one of her performances of "Changing of the Guard."
There were also two performances of "Mississippi," one by Sheryl Crow, which she introduced by telling the story of Dylan sending her the song, then she sang it along with a large string section. Another was by the Dixie Chicks with a total of 26 musicians playing it.
Both Crow and the DC did the song well, no big complaints, all the notes in the right place, polished, enjoyable.
The next night it occurred to me that I should compare their performances to one by Bob. That's because in her introduction, Crow told about running into Dylan a few years after she had recorded the song and she said, "So Bob, how'd you like my version? and he like..., How'd you like mine??"
So he didn't answer her question directly, he just asked her how she liked his version! So I started poking around on my computer to see what I might have with Dylan doing the song. I wanted a live version to compare to the other two live versions. That led me to this version that Shasta had posted on FB. So I listened to it again.
The difference was apparent to me right away, summed up in my mind with one word: authentic. Dylan's performance immediately sounded authentic to me. When I was listening to the other two performances it didn't occur to me that they didn't sound authentic, but when I played Dylan, it immediately sounded authentic to me, much more than their versions did.
He was singing about big life issues, mortality and accountability. He sounded like he was very interested in those issues and he meant every single word he sang about them, right there in that moment. He wanted us to know what he had to say about them.
I went back and listened to the ladies again. As I listened to one of them, I thought, "Well now, this is a jaunty little tune!" I was tapping along with my toe. The lyrics all came rolling off their tongues, smooth and clear. All the performers seemed to be enjoying themselves, and why not, they were performing a great Bob Dylan tune. I was listening to the music, rolling along with them, kinda happy, but not taking the lyrics very seriously.
They were not authentic. They were not delivering the message of the song. They were performing the song (all the notes) and doing it well, but I was not drawn into considering the words they were singing that much. It was clear those weren't their words.
Back to Bob. Of course he has an advantage right out of the box. They really ARE his words. But I don't think it's as simple as that. It is more than that. He is just soooo skilled in his singing. His pacing and tone is appropriate to what he is singing about at every point.
"Every step of the way we walk the line
Your days are numbered, so are mine"
There's some meat to this stuff and he sings it that way. His spirit elevates as he sings, he gets stronger, and he delivers each line like the thought just came to him, it interests him and he wants us to know about it. He's not trying to impress anyone, to win us over, to be a star. He's just teling us how he sees it, take it or leave it.
The ladies and their bands are trying to be as interesting as possible, to wow us, impress us, to do a good job. And they do, but not in the way that Dylan does.
This is the crux of Nobody Sings Dylan Like Dylan!
That's what it is to me. Dylan is authentic.
I believe him when he sings one of his songs. When others sing his songs, I might believe that they're doing their best to do a good job, but rarely have they made it their own song. There are exceptions, such as Nina Simone doing a riveting performance of "Ballad of Hollis Brown" in Holland in 1965. She meant every word she sang in that performance. Not so for the ladies singing "Mississippi."
As often happens, Dylan's performance got me to open the lyrics to follow along, to really get as much as I could. And then to be fair, I did the same with the ladies. Sheryl Crow changed Rosie to You, okay I don't really object to that. Maybe that made it more her own.
But something else jumped out at me in the third verse.
"Got nothin' for you, I had nothin' before
Don’t even have anything for myself anymore
Sky full of fire, pain pourin’ down
Nothing you can sell me, I’ll see you around"
That's how Dylan's website has it and how he sang it in this performance. But Crow sang "rain pourin' down"!
Did she think she was correcting a typo? Dylan clearly sings pain. And pain is more true to the serious issues he is addressing in the song. Rain seems to make some sense, to fit right in, but it doesn't seem to be what Dylan wrote, and it is not as intense as pain. It's more like Fred Astaire singin' in the rain.
In fact, Fred Astaire singin' in the rain fits right in to the jaunty feeling I had been having listening to the ladies. But Dylan didn't write a jaunty little tune for Fred Astaire to sing!
Dylan has performed this song 75 times. Do me a favor and listen to some of the live Dylan performances of the song that you have. Is there any where Dylan sings "rain?"