Bob Dylan's "High Water" - for Charley Patton - an analysis- Part 3
Bob Dylan’s “High Water (for Charley Patton)” – an analysis by Kees de Graaf- Part 3.
“The Cuckoo is a pretty bird, she warbles as she flies, I’m preachin’ the Word of God,
I’m puttin’ out your eyes. I asked Fat Nancy for somethin' to eat, she said, “Take it off the shelf—as great as you are a man, you’ll never be greater than yourself”. I told her I didn’t really care, high water everywhere”.
Undoubtedly Dylan was inspired here by the song "The Coo Coo bird”, a traditional Appalachian lyric which was originally recorded in 1927, the year of the Great Flood, by Western North Carolina banjo musician Clarence Ashley. Some of the lyrics read: “Gonna build me a log cabin on a mountain so high, so I can see Willie, as he goes on by, Um hmm hmm...Oh the coo-coo is a pretty bird, she wobbles when she flies, she never hollers coo-coo, 'til the fourth day of July”. Dylan’s own rendition of the song called “The Cuckoo” can be found on the single CD “Live at the Gaslight 1962”.
In many traditions, hearing the cuckoo’s call is a first harbinger of spring time and for that reason identified with the warmth and promise of that season. At the same time, the roving bird is a symbol of adultery, infidelity and deceptive love. This is caused by the fact that some female species of the cuckoo have the particularity to deposit their eggs in the nest of other, smaller, birds, leaving the eggs there to be hatched by a bird of totally different species.
As such, the image of the cuckoo fits in well with the apocalyptic atmosphere of the song. The cuckoo on the one hand represents spring, a brand new season with its promises of new life and warmth, and on the other hand the cuckoo represents adultery, infidelity and deceptive love. Both these two notions find their way in the song. First, it is said that “The Cuckoo is a pretty bird, she warbles as she flies”, outwardly the cuckoo is a gracious and an attractive bird to look at and to listen to. But the bird has a hidden trait when she deposits her eggs in the nest of other birds to be hatched there. She does not take any responsibility for bringing up her own breed and leaves that arduous task to other birds. It is like Dylan once said in the song “Heart of Mine”: “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime, heart of mine”. Dylan sees the same things happen in the end times of this world. Amidst the catastrophes which batter this world (“High Water Everywhere”) sexual dissipations are sold to this world as true “love” and encouraged: “jump into the wagon, love, throw your panties overboard”. This kind of love outwardly looks like “a pretty bird”, which sings songs of love: “she warbles as she flies” but in reality, behind the scenes, it is all just a fake. This kind of “love” is all deceit because it is only based on lust and is not accompanied by true love which is based on fidelity, loyalty and perseverance. Just like the cuckoo, our modern society does not take any responsibility for its own immoral deeds and shifts the burden to the society, to the public at large. The result of all this adultery is that we live in a world of broken promises of love, staggering divorce rates leading to broken families and where children are victimized. Dylan earlier said in his “T.V. Talking song”: “Your mind is your temple, keep it beautiful and free, don’t let an egg get laid in it by something you can’t see” , warning us, that in the end times you’ll have to open up your eyes and not surrender to those who want the pleasures but not the problems and to those who say “Darwin Loves You" but who in the end leave you behind with the bleak consequences of the law of the jungle.
For a world which has fallen so deeply and which is at the brink of total collapse, there is only one remedy left and that is: “I’m preachin’ the Word of God, I’m puttin’ out your eyes”. Putting out a person’s eyes may be a token of complete humiliation, like once happened to Samson when he was captured by the Philistines. We read of this in Judges 16:21: “But the Philistines took him, and put out his eyes, and brought him down to Gaza, and bound him with fetters of brass; and he did grind in the prison house”. At the same time, putting out a person’s eyes results in total blindness and this blindness is an illustration of ultimate divine wrath and judgment. We see this phenomenon in the story of the destruction of the city of Sodom as described in Genesis 19. The men of Sodom demanded to have sex with the two angles who were staying at Lot’s house. When this was refused the men of Sodom lunged towards Lot to break down the door of his house and to force themselves in. Then the angles interfered and we read in Genesis 19:11: “Then they blinded all the men, young and old, who were at the door of the house, so they gave up trying to get inside”.
The message of the ‘the Word of God’ which Dylan preaches here is, that a world may become so decadent and defiled that the only way to stop this process of total self-destruction and annihilation is to blind people so that they cannot carry out their wicked schemes. God does not rejoice in taking hard and tough measures such as putting out people’s eyes, but sometimes there is no alternative left when there is “High water everywhere”.
“I asked Fat Nancy for somethin' to eat, she said, “Take it off the shelf—as great as you are a man, you’ll never be greater than yourself”. I told her I didn’t really care, high water everywhere”. The gallery of disasters which passes by in this song is not over yet as Fat Nancy bursts upon the scene. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Dylan was inspired here by a song called “The Wreck at the Fat Nancy Trestle”- a song by Phil Audiber: Phil Audibert guitar and vocals; Alex Caton, banjo and vocals; Jeff Romano, harmonica.
This is a song about a train disaster that occurred on July 12, 1888 outside the town of Orange in the state of Virginia. In 2007 an inscription was erected at the sight of the disaster which says: “Here, on 12 July 1888, occurred one of Virginia's largest train disasters, the wreck of the Virginia Midland Railroad's Train 52, the Piedmont Airline. As it crossed the 44-foot-high, 487-foot-long trestle, called the ‘Fat Nancy’, for a local African American woman who served as a trestle watcher and reported problems, the trestle collapsed. Nine passengers were killed etc…”. When you watch the video of the song and the accompanying commentary you will indeed find out that the story is rife with ironies. Strange things happened there like never before……The refrain of the song reads:
“Wave Fat Nancy, wave that train goodbye. Save us dear Nancy, save us from our plight, where were you Nancy when the trestle fell down last night”.
Fat Nancy, the washerwoman, reported that there were problems at the trestle, but, just like Noah in the days of the sin flood, her warnings were ignored and the trestle collapsed. Ironically it says about Fat Nancy that “she just got too heavy to hold up her own weight”. This is exactly the same word pun Dylan uses when he says: “as great as you are a man, you’ll never be greater than yourself”. Now how can we all piece those things together? The Bible says that that we can tell a true prophet from a false prophet by the fact that whatever a true prophet prophesizes will come true (Deuteronomy 18:21, 22). Noah, through building the Ark, prophesized that the sin flood would come, the sin flood which would destroy the whole world and his prophesy did come true: “High water everywhere”. For that reason Noah can be called a true Prophet. In a certain sense, Fat Nancy was a true prophet too. She predicted that the trestle would collapse and it did come true. The Bible also teaches that false prophets can be manipulated and that they play up to you, (I Kings 22:6, 7) they’ve got to go where their bread is buttered. A true Prophet (I Kings 22:8) however, cannot be manipulated and such a prophet can truly say: “I’m preaching the word of God”. Fat Nancy was such a true prophet. She couldn’t be manipulated; she didn’t play up to you. It is the reason why when, Dylan “asked Fat Nancy for somethin' to eat”, she refused to obey and replied “Take it off the shelf—as great as you are a man, you’ll never be greater than yourself”. A true prophet acts irrespective of persons. Even if you are a celebrity, like Dylan is, you don’t get any preferential treatment. God treats all men as equal. The apocalyptic catastrophe will strike the rich and the poor, the famous and the humble. The prophet Fat Nancy is nobody’s well trained maid and she will not give you any material benefits upon demand. ”As great as you are a man, you’ll never be greater than yourself” puts man in the right perspective. You may be a V.I.P. in the eyes of the world but you will never reach beyond the limitations God has imposed on you and like Dylan wrote elsewhere: “God knows you ain’t gonna be taking nothing with you when you go”.
Fortunately the poet accepts Fat Nancy’s refusal to give him any preferential treatment: “I told her I didn’t really care, high water everywhere”. In the face of the high tides that are rising, the narrator now seems to realize that he’d better concentrate on the global, devastating consequences of the flood, rather than on his own personal interests.
“I’m gettin’ up in the morning—I believe I’ll dust my broom, keeping away from the women, I’m givin’ ’em lots of room. Thunder rolling over Clarksdale, everything is looking blue, I just can’t be happy, love, unless you’re happy too. It’s bad out there, high water everywhere”
“I'm goin' get up in the mornin', I believe I'll dust my broom, I'm goin' get up in the mornin', I believe I'll dust my broom, girlfriend, the black man you been lovin', girlfriend, can get my room” is from an old blues lyric called “Dust my broom” best known from Robert Johnson who recorded the song for the first time in 1936. “Dust my broom” is an old expression derived from “get up and dust” which means to leave in a hurry. Earlier “dust” was commonly used as a synonym for “depart”. In fact, the expression has Biblical roots. In the Gospel of Matthew, 10:14, Jesus Christ says: “If any household or town refuses to welcome you or listen to your message, shake its dust from your feet as you leave”. Dylan uses the same Biblical expression in the song “Pressing On” where it reads: “Shake the dust off of your feet, don’t look back“. We may conclude that the expression has the connotation of “leaving for good”, just like Dylan once expressed in “World Gone Wrong”: “Pack up my suitcase, give me my hat, no use to ask me, baby, 'cause I'll never be back”.
The line “Keeping away from the women, I'm giving them lots of room” was inspired from a traditional song called “ Bald Headed End Of A Broom”, the chorus of which goes: “Oh boys, stay away from the girls, I say, Oh give them lots of room. They'll find you and you'll wed, and they'll bang you till you're dead, with the bald-headed end of a broom.”
“Thunder rolling over Clarksdale, everything is looking blue” is a reference to Clarksdale (MS). It was just above Clarksdale where, during the Great Flood of 1927, the levee broke and water inundated the State of Mississippi. Clarksdale is not only the birth place of a.o. Sam Cooke, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker but also the place where, according to the legend, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the Highway 49/61 Crossroads. In Clarksdale we find the famous Delta Blues Museum. Clarksdale is seen as the birthplace of the blues, “everything is looking blue” is, amidst the catastrophe Dylan describes here both an appropriate and an ambiguous expression; it is a reference both to the ‘blue’, dreadful situation Clarksdale was in during the Great Flood and although Clarksdale may be called the cradle of the “blues” music, it couldn’t escape from the menace of the flood:“Thunder rolling over Clarksdale”.
This last verse of the song may be seen as an epilogue and regarded as some sort of a penance from the narrator. In spite of the rising waters and the nearing Apocalypse as described in the first verses, stealing and looting and sexual dissipations go on, and even the narrator took part in it: “Jump into the wagon, love, throw your panties on the board” but in this final verse the narrator seems to have come to his senses, just like the prodigal son once, when he went abroad and was hit hard by the hand of God but in the end repented and went back home.
“I’m gettin’ up in the morning—I believe I’ll dust my broom” shows that the poet realizes that “this place doesn’t do him any good” he is ready to hastily leave the doomed place he is in, so that the rising waters will not overtake and overflow him. He is now in an obedient and remorseful mood and seems willing to follow instructions and leave. The whole scene is somewhat reminiscent of what happened to Lot (Genesis 19) who was urged to leave the doomed city of Sodom in a hurry; the city which was on the verge of being destroyed through fire from heaven.
In the face of the approaching calamity he is ready to give up his wanton lifestyle full of sexual dissipations and there is only one way out of it and that is: “keeping away from the women, and givin’ ’em lots of room”. He knows that this won’t be easy because “these bad luck women stick like glue” and he must have realized too what it meant, what he would write elsewhere in this album: “There ain’t no limit to the amount of trouble women bring”. He knows he has to hurry now because already “Thunder is rolling over Clarksdale, everything is looking blue”; everything looks very ominous and heavy weather may break lose any minute now and if he stays on he may find himself trapped in it, and nowhere to escape.
“I just can’t be happy, love, unless you’re happy too” is a veiled and alternative wording of the so-called “Golden Rule” and proves once again that the narrator is willing to repent. The Golden Rule or ethic of reciprocity basically says that ‘one should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself’ (Matthew 7:12). In a sense “I just can’t be happy, love, unless you’re happy too” is the antipode of “Don’t reach out for me, can’t you see I’m drowning too”. When a man is locked in tight, the instinct of self-preservation becomes predominant and only heavenly aid can alter this natural tendency of man and make him loving meek and lenient, so that he can only be happy if his beloved is happy too, even when “It’s bad out there, and there’s high water everywhere”.
We’ve come to the end of the analysis of this song. We may conclude that in the face of the nearing Apocalypse the main theme of this album, which is “Love” and “Theft”, is fully expressed in this song. By love we mean both deceptive “love” –“jump into the wagon and throw your panties overboard”- and true love –“I just can’t be happy, unless you’re happy too”-. But at the place where love is, either deceptive or true love, there is ‘theft’ too. Stealing and looting go on, no matter how high the waters rise.
As always, please feel free to respond......