The lyrics and the music: High Water, a rise, a fall, a bounce, a flood

By Tony Attwood

The first question I guess most of us asked on hearing “High Water” for the first time is “why is it ‘for Charley Patton’?”

After all Dylan’s “High Water” has no musical resemblance to Charley Patton’s song of the same name.  I’ve made that point before, so please excuse the repetition, but if you need the proof here is what I think is a superb version of Dylan’s song from the Never Ending Tour from 2001.   Charley Patton’s record of the song of the same name is at the end of this little piece, in case you’ve not heard it before.   And to avoid disappointment in case you think you’ll hear the antecedents, there really is no musical connection between the two songs.

The first thing to say is that, unlike the Charley Patton song, this is not a 12 bar blues.  This is a song with no chord changes at all (12 bar blues have three chords within them).  And that lack of chord changes, for a rock or pop, or indeed blues song, presents a challenge, because we have all become utterly used to chord changes being of the essence in pop, rock and blues music.   The 12-bar blues – the classic blues format – works its way through three very specific chords in every verse, but here Dylan’s song has none of that.

Now that works here because the song is about the ceaseless rain, so Bob makes the song ceaseless by having it all based on one chord, and we an unrelenting accompaniment containing as it does, a very clear rhythm.

So what we are left with is the other elements of the pop, rock or blues song: the lyrics, the accompaniment and the melody.   But here again the accompaniment doesn’t change.  So we are now down to two elements to play with: the lyrics and the melody.

Now of course the lyrics do change through the seven verses, but there’s no story to be told here.  At most one can say it is a series of snapshots, although with a sharp change of spelling at one point it is possible to make some coherence out of the song.   Indeed this has been done by Kees de Graaf in his analysis of the song, and he may well be right in every regard, but I am not sure that makes the song any more enjoyable.  At least not for me because it is the music, that resolute use of just one chord, that unchanging banjo, that playing around with the melody, and that absolute sense that tells me that no matter what it is NOT going to stop raining, and that everyone is doomed.   And it is that which makes the song so interesting, and indeed enjoyable if one is allowed to enjoy the notion that everyone is drowning.

Thus the whole process works because the end of each verse however takes us back down – even though the lyrics proclaim “High water everywhere”.  The drop of the vocal line gives some sense of despair – that water really is still there, wherever we look.  And yet we know that within a couple of seconds, we’ll be off again, bouncing along…

So what I finally take away from this live performance is the move away from any literal thought of high water – it has become a metaphor, it is not literal high water, rather it is the notion that we are all bouncing along, doing our thing, but really it actually IS bad out there.  Indeed I perceive a growth in desperation in Bob’s voice as he gets toward the end of each verse.  We are still bouncing along, there is energy, but wherever we go, whichever way we turn there is still nothing but water.   We are afloat but with no sign of a solution, and in the end, we just slow down… and stop.

Plus we have the banjo – not an instrument we hear that often in Dylan’s work.    And the melodies are unusual – each line starting on a single note before descending through an octave to end up one octave below where it started.

So what we have is an opening line in which we have the banjo centre stage as Bob sings his way up and down the octave, before at the end of the verse taking us to the bottom of the scale, only for the next verse to be focussed on the top of scale.   And if you are not following me at this part just play the recording below and focus on Dylan singing high notes.  That opening to verse one at the bottom of the scale is not repeated.   Verse two starts at the top notes and ends up on the low notes.   Verse three the same, and so on…

Now we are told that after Dylan had recorded the song he cut up the recording and put the verses in a new order.  That may be true, but what can’t have changed is the first verse with its use of the lower parts of the scale.  To have it anywhere else would not have made any sense.

But beyond everything, it is the beat that holds us, along with the unusual (for Dylan) sound of the banjo that takes us along, plus the fact that every verse ends with a descent, and is musically the same – apart from that very first verse.

In short, having stripped out most of the opportunity for musical variance, Bob has given us music which fits exactly the endless rain that is portrayed in the song, but rather wonderfully has done this without making the song utterly boring.  Quite the opposite in fact.   One can hear what he does, and it sounds great, but for me it is not until one strips the elements of the song apart, does one realise just how clever this is.

Here, in case you don’t know the piece, is the original “High Water Everywhere” – but please don’t expect the same song.  Dylan’s tribute is in the form of taking the title, and writing a new song under that name.

The lyrics and the music: the series…


  1. This is an interesting piece of writing, Mr. Atwood. The musical commentary of the sung progression through the octave is something I never noticed. I also had not considered that the song could be a metaphor. I wonder for what? (Perhaps the apocalypse, or simply the end of a phase of life for these “drowning” characters?) I always think the strange thing about this song is that, if it’s about a decisive series of moments for the lives of the different figures of the verses, then what does all of the erotic imagery mean? Is it a metaphor for stale relationships that somehow inspire desire, perhaps for other people? The notion of metaphor helps with this question for me, unless Dylan is reimagining images of natural disaster (famous in at least Bessie Smith’s song about the Mississippi flood, “Muddy Water”) with eros involved. This adds a unique twist to blues songs about floods. (However…maybe what Dylan says about his songwriting process is true here — he thinks of an old song and his song writes itself, without all of the conscious intention going into it that rewards interpretation?)

  2. Thank you Piotr – I think I would go along with that final thought: the song probably writes itself, so to Bob Dylan any contradictions don’t matter – it is just the way it came out. But I still find it fun to dig around inside some of these songs to see what’s there.

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