Sometimes it feels like Bob Dylan says: "I practice a faith that's long been abandoned, ain't no altars on this long and lonesome road"

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Charley Patton

Bob Dylan's "High Water" - for Charley Patton - an analysis- Part 1

Part 1 of Bob Dylan’s “High Water (for Charley Patton)” – an analysis by Kees de Graaf

This song from the album “Love and Theft” (2001) is a typically Dylanesque song and without any doubt a masterpiece. The song – in its apocalyptic menace- is closely tied to another masterpiece on the same album: “Mississippi”. One could also say that “High Water” ” is Dylan’s late-career new-millennium equivalent of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”. The flood overwhelms doomed people, and there is no help as the structure of society breaks down like in the days of Noah’s great flood. Although “High Water” is vividly metaphorical and full of apocalyptic conceit, it focuses on the story of the great Mississippi Flood of 1927. This devastating flood caused death and widespread destruction throughout the lower Mississippi Valley, from Arkansas to Louisiana, from Cairo, Ill., to the Gulf of Mexico. The number of casualties is not known exactly. Historians estimated the death toll at about 250 victims, but deaths due to the following disease and exposure were estimated to exceed 1,000 deaths. The Flood of 1927 affected an area of 27,000 square miles, about the size of all the New England states combined. The song is full of references to old blues songs and although it focuses on the Great Flood of 1927, it is not entirely restricted to that era, as we will outline below.

Dylan was not the only one who composed a song dealing with this catastrophe. In terms of music the flood aroused a hype which produced a lot of songs depicting the tragedy and, as may be expected, most of these songs had their roots in the blues. The songs included Bessie Smith’s “Muddy Water (A Mississippi Moan),” Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Rising High Water Blues,” Memphis Minnie’s “When the Levee Breaks” and Vernon Dalhart’s “The Mississippi Flood.” Dylan dedicated the song to Charley Patton (1891-1934). Patton was at one time seen as the father of the Mississippi Delta Blues. Patton zigzagged between sacred church music and blues. One of his strongest songs was High Water Everywherewhich he recorded in two parts in 1929, and of which we may say that it has been Dylan’s major source of inspiration when he composed “High Water”. Patton performed “High Water Everywhere” in a special way. It sounded as if he were some reporter, breaking news of some big catastrophe in a live broadcast, shouting over his guitar as if at any moment he himself could be swept off his feet by the disaster.

Although Dylan made it clear in the song “God knows” from the album “Under the Red Sky” that: “there’s gonna be no more water but fire next time”, (hinting at the fire by which the world will be purified at the Latter Day) “water” has always been one of his main elements to express apocalyptic judgment and doom, e.g. in the songs. “Down in the Flood” and “The Levee’s gonna break”. Dylan's singing on "Down in the Flood" sounds more like a warning; here his voice sounds more like a menace, emphasized by David Kemper's drum rolls at the start of each verse, which sound like a wave of water.
The question is what message the poet intends to convey in this song? I think that the message of the song is that no matter how hard the world is hit by calamities of apocalyptic proportions, the lewd basic instincts of man remain intact. On the ruins of civilization and amidst all the hardships catastrophes cause, looting, stealing and sexual orgies and dissipations go on, as if nothing has happened. Let’s see how this works out in the lyrics of the song.

High water risin’—risin’ night and day, all the gold and silver are bein' stolen away, Big Joe Turner lookin’ east and west from the dark room of his mind, he made it to Kansas City
Twelfth Street and Vine, nothin' standing there, high water everywhere”.
When the water rises night and day you and the threat of flooding comes closer and closer and in the end becomes inevitable reality, you may expect people to help and support one another in this dreadful circumstance. However, during every big catastrophe there are always some people who take advantage of the situation. They enrich themselves by stealing and robbing from people when they are in a vulnerable position: “all the gold and silver are bein' stolen away”. We see this happening on a local, micro, level; like in the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 Dylan deals with here, but also on a global level, where 20% of the world population has stolen all natural resources, at the expense of 80% of the world population that lives in poverty.
Big Joe Turner lookin’ east and west from the dark room of his mind” introduces Big Joe Turner. Born Joseph Vernon Turner (1911-1985), Turner was an American blues shouter from Kansas City, Missouri. Some say that "Rock and roll would have never happened without him." Although he reached the top of his great fame in the 1950s with his innovating rock and roll recordings, particularly "Shake, Rattle and Roll", Turner's career as a performer stretched from the 1920s into the 1980s. Turner's songs rocketed to the top of the rhythm-and-blues charts. However, his records were sometimes so down to earth and pedestrian that some radio stations refused to play them. It may be the reason why his moral principles are questioned here and why it says that Turner operated “from the dark room of his mind”. A “dark room” is a room in a gay bar or adult movie theater where customers engage in sexual activity of some kind. Turner, as an adult, operating “from the dark room of his mind” is in strong contrast with the young Turner, who, as a child, first discovered his love of music through involvement in the church. Turner's father was killed in a tragic train accident when Joe was only four years old. This tragic accident may account for the dark room in his mind. He began singing on street corners for money, leaving school at age fourteen to begin working in Kansas City's nightclub scene, first as a cook, and later as a singing bartender. “Big Joe Turner lookin’ east and west” may mean that Turner “had” it. He was very successful and had all the possibilities to go either to the east or to the west. ”He made it to Kansas City Twelfth Street and Vine”. Turner not only made “to” Kansas City, he also made it “in” Kansas City. The period between the 1940s and the 1970s was a heady time when Kansas City was sometimes considered the crossroads of the world. This was fueled by the Presidency of hometown boy Harry Truman from 1945 through 1953, followed immediately by Kansan Dwight D. Eisenhower from 1953 to 1961.
“Kansas City Twelfth Street and Vine” refers to the City's 12th Street, which became nationally known for its jazz clubs, gambling parlors and brothels, earning the city the name, "The Paris of the Plains." At its top, 12th Street was home to more than 50 jazz clubs.
No matter how big and famous Joe Turner might have been, he would ‘never be greater than himself and in the end would have to surrender to the forces of nature: “nothin’ standing there, high water everywhere”. Kansas City was hit by the Great Flood of 1951 causing massive devastation.

“High water risin’, the shacks are slidin’ down, folks lose their possessions—folks are leaving town”. As said above, the Great Flood of 1927 caused massive devastation. Over 130,000 homes were lost and 700,000 people were displaced. Property damage was estimated at 350 million dollars, equivalent to approximately 5 billion dollars today.
“Bertha Mason shook it—broke it- then she hung it on a wall, says, “You’re dancin’ with whom they tell you to or you don’t dance at all”, it’s tough out there, high water everywhere”. These lines have been inspired by Patton’s song “Shake it and Break it” which starts with the following lines: “You can shake it, you can break it, you can hang it on the wall, throw it out the window, catch it 'fore it roll, you can shake it, you can break it, you can hang it on the wall, out the window, catch it 'fore it falls, my jelly, my roll, sweet mama, don't let it fall”.
Bertha Mason is an insane character in a well-known novel with the title “Jane Eyre”, written by the English writer Charlotte Brontë and published in 1847.Dylan wants to make it clear that no matter how much devastation of apocalyptic proportions is immanent in America’s society, it is nevertheless the rules and ‘moral’ principles of the violent, the insane, the madmen and the cruel - like Bertha Mason – who pull the strings, and by which rules we all have to abide. All that is shattered, shaken and broken, all that is ugly, is presented to the nation as the best we can ever produce; it is hung on the wall for everybody to see. It is like Dylan once wrote in ‘Political World’: “We live in a political world, everything is hers or his, climb into the frame and shout God’s name, but you’re never sure what it is”. When houses are destroyed and thousands of people are displaced and forced to flee, leaving all their possessions behind, there are always some maniacs left who really thrive on insanity – like Bertha Mason once did – and they have an unholy glee over all those unfortunates and they force you into a macabre dance, to dance in accordance with their rules or principles,  to fulfill their wishes, and if you are unwilling, you are excluded from society and from the upper ten and you are told that you will not “ dance at all”.

“I got a cravin’ love for blazing speed, got a hopped-up Mustang Ford, jump into the wagon, love, throw your panties overboard. I can write you poems, make a strong man lose his mind, I’m no pig without a wig, I hope you treat me kind, things are breakin’ up out there, high water everywhere”. When the world is under threat of being wiped out, one may expect that man will repent. But that is usually not the case. On the contrary, in the Apocalypse, the low natural tendencies of man seem to thrive like never before. The saying “let’s eat and drink and be merry, because tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:32) rings true. This is expressed in various ways in the song. First in “a cravin’ love for blazing speed”; the word ‘craving’ indicates that this love for blazing speed has something of a compulsion neurosis.
The words “A hopped up Mustang Ford” in combination with “craving love” and “blazing speed”  is a brilliant pun. A Mustang Ford is said to be a “speedy car, but “speed” is also a drug for which you may be “craving”.  So you may be “craving for the drug “speed”, but you may also have a craving love for blazing “speed”” – that is for driving very fast. The reason why the Mustang Ford is called “hopped up” is because it is a very “speed-y”, fast car. By the way, speed (methamphetamine) is a dangerous and unpredictable drug, sometimes lethal, representing the fastest growing drug abuse threat in America today. Speed is a potent and addictive central nervous system stimulant, closely related chemically to amphetamine, but with greater central nervous system effects. “Hopped up” means ‘high’ or ‘stoned’, the word is derived from “hop", a nickname for heroin and/or opium, but it can refer to the effects of any drug, e.g. ‘everyone got all hopped up at the concert and the after party’
Chuck Berry's influence is apparent on the album “Love and Theft”. The lines in “Summer Days” about having eight carburetors and a stalling motor seem to be inspired by Berry's "Maybelline". Also the lines in "Lonesome Day Blues” about "dropping it into overdrive” and the "hopped up Mustang Ford”, seem to be influenced by Berry’s song. “The Mustang Ford” was initially based on the second generation North American Ford Falcon, a compact car. The first generation of the Mustang Ford was introduced in 1964 and has undergone several transformations to its current fifth generation.
In this verse an atmosphere is created of drugs use in combination with fast cars, wanton women and sexual orgies, that’s why it now says: “jump into the wagon, love, throw your panties overboard”. The concept of sex as a last stronghold in the face of a nearing apocalypse may be called a classic lyrical device, a last resort when “things are breaking up out there,” when everything is lost and there is no hope left, why shouldn’t you surrender, jump into the wagon and throw your panties overboard and have sex, no matter how hard the world burns all around you?

“I can write you poems, make a strong man lose his mind, I’m no pig without a wig, I hope you treat me kind, things are breakin’ up out there, high water everywhere”  “All my powers of expression and thoughts so sublime, could never do you justice in reason or rhyme” (from “Mississippi”) in some sort of a way seems to be the counterpart of “I can write you poems, make a strong man lose his mind”. It is true, Dylan is indeed a great poet, and the Nobel Prize in Literature should have been awarded to him a long time ago. His poetry is so powerful that it may “make a strong man lose his mind”. He is a public figure – a pig with a wig (a “pig without a wig” make be taken from some nursery rhyme, where it reads: “as I went to Bonner, I met a pig without a wig, upon my word and honor”. In private –without his wig – the poet is no pig but a gentle person, who deserves to be treated kindly, as he would treat her. We may conclude that whether you are a person with public acclaim or not, whether you are a great poet or not, no matter who or where you are, when you are stuck and “things are breakin’ up out there”, man is inclined to take refuge to low and lewd survival mechanisms.

“High water risin’, six inches ’bove my head, coffins droppin’ in the street like balloons made out of lead. Water pourin’ into Vicksburg, don’t know what I’m goin' to do, “Don’t reach out for me,” she said, “Can’t you see I’m drownin’ too? “It’s rough out there, high water everywhere”.
The narrator is now completely stuck. The water rises above his head and many people drown. What was first thought to unbelievable, like a lead balloon, now becomes virtual reality, indicating that the full impact of the apocalyptic disaster will be worse than anyone could ever imagine. ”Coffins dropping in the streets” but soon enough there will be no coffins left for the many who will die in the catastrophe, nor will there be any dry land left for them to be buried. “Water pourin’ into Vicksburg” is inspired by Charley Patton’s song “High Water Everywhere” who has: “Boy, I'm goin' to Vicksburg, well, I'm goin' to Vicksburg, for that high of mine”. Vicksburg, Miss., is on higher grounds than the rest of the Mississippi Delta, so it was a place that could provide refuge, and at the time of the 1927 flood there was a refugee camp at Vicksburg. In 2002, it was the 75th Anniversary of the Great Flood of 1927 and on March 12th 2002 there was a gathering at Vicksburg, commemorating the event.
The narrator is at his wits end, he thought he would be safe at Vicksburg but now “Water’s even pourin’ into Vicksburg”, the poet has to admit: “we’re trapped in the heart of it; we’re all boxed in, nowhere to escape”. The poet is ‘Down in the Flood’ and has no alternative but “to find himself another best friend, somehow”. But in vain, when he reaches out for help to her he is refused “Can’t you see I’m drownin’ too?” Everybody is thrown on his own resources for help, and there will be no mercy for you once you’ve lost like Dylan once said in ‘Down in the Flood’: “It’s sugar for sugar and salt for salt, it’s king for king and queen for queen, this is the meanest flood anybody has ever seen”. That’s how it all ends in this world, when things start to disintegrate. We live in a world of the end times, where – like Dylan once wrote in the song ‘Political World’ –“mercy walks the plank, life is in mirrors, death disappears up the steps into the nearest bank” and where he cannot draw any other conclusion but: “It’s rough out there, high water everywhere”.

In part 2 of my analysis we’re going to take a closer look at among others George Lewis and Charles Darwin, so please stay tuned to this website. As always please feel free to respond to this article.

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Published on: 28-10-2011 17:07:46

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Good analysis. I would suggest that "darkroom" may also refer to a room for developing film.


society's pliers30-10-2011 00:11

I appreciate what you are doing.
But I hear this song as being about contemporary events, happening right now.
There were no Mustang Fords in 1927.
You have  likely heard Dylan's interview with Studs Terkel back in the early 60's.  He explained what he meant by "pellets of poison are flooding the waters", as referring to "all the lies" out there.  Another song about "contemporary events".


john goodall29-10-2011 17:11

Another great work, Kees!


Peter Hyatt29-10-2011 15:08

Keep up the good work. You responded to my last response. But  I am not able to find my last post on your site to reread my response to give you a proper answer. Please send my old response back to me so I can give you my answer.


ed29-10-2011 14:17

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