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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Kees de Graaf
George Lewes (1809-1882)

Bob Dylan's "High Water" - for Charley Patton - an analysis- Part 2


Bob Dylan’s “High Water (for Charley Patton)” – an analysis by Kees de Graaf- Part 2   

“Well, George Lewis (see the picture on the left) told the Englishman, the Italian and the Jew, “You can’t open your mind, boys to every conceivable point of view” They got Charles Darwin trapped out there on Highway Five. Judge says to the High Sheriff, “I want him dead or alive, either one, I don’t care”, high water everywhere”
Who is this George Lewis? Some have suggested that it may be George E. Lewis (born in 1952 in Chicago) who is a trombone player, composer, and scholar in the fields of jazz and experimental music and a pioneer of computer music. Others say it may be George Lewis (1900-1968) who was an American jazz clarinetist who achieved his greatest fame and influence in the later decades of his life.
The problem is however, that the lyrics seem to suggest that there is a connection between George Lewis and Charles Darwin (1809-1882) but neither of these two musicians do have this link, nor are they known to have stated something as philosophic as: “You can’t open your mind, boys to every conceivable point of view”, a statement which obviously has kindled the anger of the Judge to such an extent that a death or alive warrant is issued.
However, if you spell Lewes instead of Lewis there is definitely a connection. (“Lewis” is the spelling which is used on the official Bob Dylan website, however, one may wonder if there is any “official” spelling which is authorized by Dylan himself).
So there can hardly be any doubt that George Henry Lewes (1817-1878), a contemporary and correspondent of Charles Darwin is referred to here. George Henry Lewes was an English philosopher and critic of literature and theatre. He became part of the mid-Victorian flow of ideas which boosted discussion of Darwinism, positivism, and religious skepticism. Influenced by positivism, Lewes abandoned all faith in the possibility of metaphysics, the idea that there is more to this world than we can see and feel, in fact he refuted the idea that there might be a God who planned it all and who is in control of  all things, also of the faculties of the intellect. He laid down this abandonment in his ‘History of Philosophy’. To suggest and to stimulate the mind, but certainly not to supply it with any complete system of knowledge, may be said to be Lewes's main contribution to philosophy. Lewes once said[1] : “We must never assume that which is incapable of proof”. In his ‘Foundations of a Creed’ he pronounced all inquiry into the ultimate nature of things fruitless.  This is the reason why the poet has Lewes say: “You can’t open your mind, boys to every conceivable point of view”. From Lewes’s stance, the concept of believing in a God who created all things and controls all things, may be nothing more than “a conceivable point of view”, for which it is no use opening up your mind because this would go far beyond the limitations of the human mind and is therefore completely fruitless. Lewes said this “to the Englishman, the Italian and the Jew”. The Englishman represents the Protestant, the Italian represents the Roman Catholic and the Jew represents Judaism. Protestantism and Catholism, representing the main stream of Christianity, have something in common with Judaism.  They all share the Old Testament. The doctrines of the Bible in the Old Testament which declare God, Jaweh, as the Creator of all things and as the Origin of all Species, is denounced by Lewes as something to which you cannot open up your mind. Because of this denouncement the Judge is very angry with Lewes and wants him “dead or alive”.These words seem to be inspired by an old traditional called “Po’ Lazarus”, which has the following lyrics: “Well, the High Sheriff, he told his deputy,
want you go out and bring me Lazarus, bring him dead or alive”.
To make sense of all of this, we feel that it is absolutely essential to understand that   the words “Judge” and “High Sheriff”, which are used here, are a metaphor for God and/or Jesus. God does not accept to be denounced, outmaneuvered, and His omnipresence darkened by Lewes’ philosophy. God shows his wrath to Lewes, and for that matter also to Charles Darwin and to the whole world, by allowing apocalyptic catastrophes to take place: “High Water Everywhere” .It is like C.S. Lewis (British Scholar and Novelist, 1898-1963) once wrote: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world”.
The message Dylan wants to convey can be read between the lines: There is no salvation in George Lewes’ philosophy of the autonomy of the human intellect, nor is there salvation in Charles Darwin’s theory of the evolution of the species. This does not mean that Dylan intends to say that there is no truth in the theory of the evolution of the species. The point Dylan seems to make is that it is all about the harsh qualities of life governed by natural selection, and Dylan seems to refute Darwin’s thesis that there is only one eternal law in the universe and that is the law of the jungle which is at the basis of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. When you accept the consequences of natural selection to the very end, the only truth in the universe is a world, which is driven by mere chance and heartless competition. The result is a disenchanted world without the active presence of an Almighty God who is above all and everything, a God who is always ineffably much more than any theory a man can ever conceive. This result is unacceptable to God and that is why Dylan has Darwin convicted by God.
The irony in the picture Dylan draws is that a world which embraces the consequences of the theory of natural selection is not only battered but in the end even destroyed by its own theory. Within the reasoning of this theory the Flood: “High Water Everywhere”, is only caused by mere chance and self-centered egoism, expressed by “Don’t reach out for me, can’t you see I’m drowning too”, is morally justified as the only means of survival of the fittest.  In this song we see what happens if (as Dylan says in “Jokerman”) the law of the jungle is our only teacher: a harsh and self-centered world, where mercy walks the plank. Fortunately, it is not the law of the jungle but the love and mercy of God that will ultimately win and rule the earth.
There is irony too in the fact that it is Charles Darwin himself who is trapped in the flood. Within his own theory a devastating flood happens by mere chance and enables only the fittest to survive by the process of natural selection. However, by trapping Darwin, God makes it clear that He rules and allows catastrophes to occur and that he is able to intervene in any process, also in the process of natural selection, and use it for His Own purposes.
The lyrics say that “They got Charles Darwin trapped out there on Highway Five”. Highway 5 might have been chosen to make it rhyme with the following “alive”. However, one would rather have expected that Dylan would have had Darwin trapped on Highway 61. Highway 61, sometimes called the "Blues Highway," stretches from New Orleans through Memphis and from Iowa through Dylan's birthplace, Duluth, to the Canadian border. But Highway 61 also runs through the Mississippi Delta, which was devastated by the Great Flood of 1927. Along Highway 61 a lot of strange and harrowing things have happened. Bessie Smith was killed in an automobile accident on that roadway; Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads of Highway 61 and Highway 49; Elvis Presley grew up in the housing projects built along Highway 61 and Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated at a motel just off Highway 61. Darwin would have fitted in very well in this category. In your imagination you can see it happen quite vividly: Charles Darwin trapped in his carriage on Highway 61, struggling to survive, unable to move on because of the ever rising waters which encircle him and block up the road ahead of him, while at the same time The High Sheriff and his servants close in on him.
Highway 5, however, is a long way from the disaster area. Highway 5 stretches from Washington State, down through California, and the only reason I can think of why Dylan chose Highway 5 for this scene, is for rhyming purposes.
“I want him dead or alive, either one, I don’t care”. One would expect the lyrics to read: “I want them dead or alive” because the following “either one” suggests that both George Lewes and Charles Darwin are wanted by the Judge. The Judge doesn’t care whether they are delivered up dead or alive, as long as both of them are handed over to Him.
We already said that we have solid reasons to assume that when Dylan says: “Judge says to the High Sheriff” he uses these words as a metaphor for God and/or Jesus. In the Bible God is often called “Judge”, both in the Old and in the New Testament; e.g. Psalm 7:11 says: “God is an honest Judge. He is angry with the wicked every day”. Jesus is also called Judge in the Bible.  Acts 10:42 for example says “that Jesus is the one appointed by God to be the judge of all—the living and the dead”. The High Sheriff is ordered here in the song to execute the Judge’s verdict. This comes close to when Jesus is called “the ruler of all the kings in the world” (Revelation 1:5) who executes God’s verdicts (Acts 17:31). In his 2004 CBS Television interview Dylan correctly calls Jesus “the Chief Commander, in this earth and in a world we can’t see”.  There is one other reason why the words “Judge” and “High Sheriff” are used as a metaphor for God and/or Jesus. If one would take the words “Judge” and “High Sheriff” in a literal sense, one must assume that both George Lewes and Charles Darwin had committed crimes on this earth which would justify a dead or alive warrant put out against them. But that was not the case, so we have to understand these words in a figurative, metaphorical sense.

Next time, in part 3 of my analysis we are going to take a closer look at the cuckoo and at Fat Nancy, so stay in touch with this website. As always, your comments on this article are highly appreciated…..



[1] The Physiology of Common Life (1859-60; repr. New York: D. Appleton, 1867) vol. 2, p. 349

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Published on: 04-11-2011 17:08:30

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Fair enough, but as usual Dylan is not as straight forward as Kees would have it. God's priest would put out your eyes, not open them, and it's Darwin who's wanted either dead or alive, ie, in the latter case, his theory still remains for examination.

Meaning is left open to the eyes of the beholder, but not so wide-open that the meaning is beyond the scope of the lyrics.


Larry Fyffe17-01-2020 14:32


I like what you are saying, but as for my part, I never thought of God as the Judge/Sheriff, I thought of these 2 as characters of the racist South in the USA...but I do like what you interpretation is...



lili white27-01-2018 21:01

Seems to me that Dylan is saying that human beings aren't capable of opening their minds to every conceivable point of view. Your command of English seems equivalent to mine, so I hesitate to mention that in the US, at least, jokes are very often set up with "A Jew, a Yank and a Mexican..." or some such selection. Starting a line that way gives one the impressing a joke is coming. I respect your connection to Lewes but it's not convincing. Darwin introduced one of the great shocks to the ego of man. Just that is enough to link Darwin to the idea of stressing the human mind with constant change -- and the dangerous madness that can result. From an American perspective in Dec 2013, 12 years after the song was released, it seems a prophetic description of the end of any kind of consensus about what the American Project is.

Jesus says in Matthew to make peace with your accuser lest he hand you to a judge, who hands you to an officer, who puts you in prison (5:25). If there is a link between this passage and the Judge and High Sheriff in the song, Dylan is not referring to God but to the Oppression System of his day, just as Jesus was -- certainly not divine justice!

Thanks for you site, for sharing your thoughts.


Vance28-12-2013 21:06

Highway 5 is on the east coast of the USA, not in California.  It travels through Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont.

Here in the USA, we have US Highways and Interstate Highways.  US Highway 5 is referred to as "Highway 5" or "US-5", and Interstate Highway 5 is referred to as "I-5".   Mr. Dylan understands and uses this common nomenclature.

I love your work, Kees.


Ten Hits25-08-2012 20:14

Great analysis. I can't find part three, has it been published? Thanks


molebird107-11-2011 18:53

I think when he says "either one" he is referring to "dead or alive," not Lewes or Darwin. He doesn't care if they catch him dead -or- alive... good piece though!!


JD06-11-2011 19:21

 Keep up the good work. Find your research interesting.


ed ackerman05-11-2011 14:44

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