Bob Dylan, whose song "Mississippi" reflects Stoic sentimentsBy Larry Kaufmann

Shmuel Ben-Gad’s review of a book about an underappreciated stoic here on The American Culture inspired me to visit my neighborhood Border’s the next day to see if I could find a copy. It wasn’t there, but my search did acquaint me with other Stoic texts and other interesting books in a section of Borders (Philosophy and Linguistics) I rarely inspect. Afterwards, I headed to the gym for a light workout. I got on the step machine, put my iPod on shuffle, and soon began to work up a sweat.

Maybe it was the Stoic philosophy still running through my mind, but eventually a song shuffled onto my playlist that seemed like a near-perfect reflection on the Stoic life. The singer is wise to the ways of the world but remains calm. He has seen more than his share of trouble but is free from anger or regret.

There is also a sense of equipoise, an acceptance of events he cannot change—coupled, ironically, with a strong will to chart his own course.

Perhaps most surprisingly, he has found happiness, as he sings, “My heart is not weary/it’s light and it’s free/I’ve got nothing but affection for those that sailed with me.” That’s quite a statement in the light of everything else he relates in the song.

The song is “Mississippi,” by Bob Dylan. I wish YouTube had a video of his version (the sited does have some cover versions), because so much of the stoicism in the song is communicated through Dylan’s tone and inflection. If you’re familiar with the song, you probably know what I mean. If not, the lyrics below give you a good sense of the Stoic sentiments, with a twist that makes it even more interesting.

That twist is the one potentially non-Stoic element: that one day in Mississippi, the day of the “one thing I did wrong.”

Art, like real life, is seldom as tidy as philosophy, I suppose.

Here are the lyrics:

Mississippi, by Bob Dylan

Every step of the way, we walk the line
Your days are numbered, so are mine
Time is piling up, we struggle and we stray
We’re all boxed in, nowhere to escape

City’s just a jungle, more games to play
Trapped in the heart of it, tryin’ to get away
I was raised in the country, I been working in the town
I been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down

Got nothing for you, I had nothing before
Don’t even have anything for myself anymore
Sky full of fire, came pouring down
Nothing you can sell me, I’ll see you around

All my powers of expression and thoughts so sublime
Could never do you justice in reason or rhyme
Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long

Well, the devil’s in the alley, mule’s in the stall
Say anything you wanna, I have heard it all
I was thinking about the things that Rosie said
I was dreaming I was sleeping in Rosie’s bed

Walking through the leaves, falling from the trees
Feeling like a stranger nobody sees
So many things that we never will undo
I know you’re sorry; I’m sorry too

Some people will offer you their hand, and some won’t
Last night I knew you, tonight I don’t
I need something strong to distract my mind
I’m gonna look at you ’til my eyes go blind

Well I got here following the southern star
I crossed that river just to be where you are
Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long

Well my ship’s been split to splinters and it’s sinking fast
I’m drowning in the poison, got no future, got no past
But my heart is not weary, it’s light and it’s free
I’ve got nothing but affection for all those who sailed with me

Everybody’s moving, if they ain’t already there
Everybody’s got to move somewhere
Stick with me baby, stick with me anyhow
Things should start to get interesting right about now

My clothes are wet, tight on my skin
Not as tight as the corner that I painted myself in
I know that fortune is waiting to be kind
So give me your hand and say you’ll be mine

Well, the emptiness is endless, cold as the clay
You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way
Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long.

Larry Kaufmann is an economic consultant and policy adviser to The Heartland Institute who contributes to Yeah Right, a pop culture blog.