High Water (for Charley Patton) (2001) part 3


by Jochen Markhorst

III         You got a fast car

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

In Dylan’s oeuvre, this is certainly not the first or only protagonist to confess an addiction to speed. The Early Roman Kings (2012) are speeding through the forest, racing down the track; “I had to move fast,” opens “Tight Connection To My Heart” in 1985; and when I was young, driving was my crave, the first-person says in “Someday Baby”, but then takes the almost traditional turn to double entendre in the continuation: You drive me so hard, almost to the grave – a now hundred-year-old metaphor for sex, courtesy of all those blues classics that feature horny drivers, riders and chauffeurs.

Here in this third stanza the narrator also wants to share something about his need for carnal pleasures, but the fast car is the setting, not a metaphor. Just as familiar in the history of popular music. Standard-bearer, of course, is Tracy Chapman’s indestructible “Fast Car” from 1988 (although that song is not about fast cars at all). And at least as legendary are songs like Deep Purple’s “Highway Star” with Blackmore’s unforgettable solo, Jim Croce’s “Rapid Boy”, George Harrison’s somewhat bloodless ode to speed “Faster” from 1979 (with the clip featuring Jackie Stewart as Harrison’s chauffeur, which does make up for much of the bloodlessness). Not to mention Queen’s unabashed declaration of love to fast cars, the unjustly often maligned “I’m In Love With My Car” (1975). Or the song Dylan singles out in the Wall Street Journal interview (December 2022), Chuck Berry’s 1960 ” Jaguar And Thunderbird”. And there are, of course, thousands more examples.

The car industry does not complain. One of the first “car songs” is K.C. Douglas’ 1948 “Mercury Blues”, an ode to the Ford Mercury in an attractive country-blues package. Recorded in 1948, it already sings with anticipation of the Mercury ’49, indeed a beast of a car;

Hey now mama
You look so fine
Drivin’ around in your Mercury ‘49
Crazy about a Mercury
Lord I'm crazy bout a Mercury
I'm going to buy me a Mercury and cruise it up and down the road

The Ford Motor Company even buys the rights to the song, and then uses it in 1996 for a television commercial (replacing the word “Mercury” with “Ford Truck”).


Dylan’s source for the hopped-up Mustang Ford does not receive that honour, and understandably so. The surf rocker “Hopped-Up Mustang” by Arlen Sanders, a flopped single from 1964 that still occasionally turns up on compilation albums, is a fairly run-of-the-mill talkin’ blues over a fairly run-of-the-mill surf tune, and admittedly does begin as if it were a commercial for Ford, with a young man proudly presenting his “new steed”, the Mustang:

It's got a 289 motor, with a special Cobra kit,
there ain't nothin' on the road that can even touch it.
It's got eight carburettors and it uses them all,
with a four-speed stick that just won't stall.

With that transistor ignition and power-pipe exhaust,
this is the machine that'll really get lost.
Everything built to make it perform,
it may not be hot but it sure is warm.

… but its promotional value is undermined by the continuation; Arlen gets in, is to his annoyance overtaken by a Cadillac and chases after it like a madman. It becomes a race at speeds where “the lines on the road just look like dots” and “the telephone poles looked like a picket fence”, and ends in jail. Arlen’s father is furious and refuses to post bail – Dang me, he told me not to hop up that Mustang!

No, not exactly advertising Ford. But with Dylan, the lyrics of the talkin’ song clearly strike a chord; on this same album “Love And Theft”, we already heard the ninth verse of “Summer Days” 15 minutes ago, on Side A:

I got eight carburetors, boys, I’m using ’em all
Well, I got eight carburetors and boys, I’m using ’em all
I’m short on gas, my motor’s starting to stall

… a barely remodelled paraphrase of Arlen Sanders’

It's got eight carburettors and it uses them all,
with a four-speed stick that just won't stall.

… that, incidentally, 20 lines later is short on gas as well.

Just as the cravin’ love for blazing speed, according to Albuquerque’s Supreme Sourcefinder Scott Warmuth, is a loving theft from an obscure single as well, in this case Johnny Bond’s “Hot Rod Harry” from 1974, when that whole craze of talkin’ up-tempo songs about Hot Rod races had already faded away;

Everybody make way for Hot Rod Harry,
Of brains and cash I ain't got narry.
Gotta cravin' love for blazin' speed,
A whizzin' Lizzie, that's all I need.

It all suggests that Dylan still has the same working method in the creation phase as we saw with the previous album, Time Out Of Mind (1997). Thanks to the outtakes on The Bootleg Series 8: Tell Tale Signs (2008), we know that Dylan rescues beautiful phrases, lines of verse with a power of their own, from discards and moves them to other songs, sometimes even distributing them over two, three songs. We have seen, for instance, that the most beautiful lines from the rejected song “Marchin’ To The City” are reused in “‘Til I Fell In Love With You” and in “Not Dark Yet”. And like that, it now also seems that “Summer Days” and “High Water” are built on the remains of an unknown, presumably rejected “car song”, some song about a car or about driving for which Dylan drew from the flopped surf rocker “Hopped-Up Mustang” from 1964 and the dated, equally flopped “Hot Rod Harry” from 1974.

“It’s nice to be able to put yourself in an environment where you can completely accept all the unconscious stuff that comes to you from your inner workings of your mind,” Dylan replied back in 1991 when Paul Zollo asked him: “Do you try to consciously guide the meaning or do you try to follow subconscious directions?” We may assume that Dylan means subconscious when he says all the unconscious stuff that comes to you from your inner workings of your mind. And it seems we see that demonstrated again here; the insertion of a line from “Hopped-Up Mustang” triggers presumably the best-known recitation song from the early 1960s, Jimmy Dean’s “Big Bad John”, and Jimmy Dean in turn awakens his version of the nineteenth-century old-time song “Wait For The Wagon”:

Come listen to my story now it will relieve my heart
So jump into the wagon and off we will start

Possible. But how the meandering stream then arrives at the trite throw your panties overboard is mysterious. Via the translation of Céline’s D’un château l’autre (Castle to Castle, 1957), suspects Dylan researcher Scott Warmuth. In the award-winning 1970 translation, Ralph Manheim translates slips par-dessus les moulins as “panties overboard”, which indeed is a word combination remarkable enough to be promoted to “Dylan inspiration”.

Dylan’s stream-of-consciousness is starting to pick up steam. It’s got eight carburettors and it uses them all.


To be continued. Next up High Water (For Charley Patton) part 4: What’s so bad about misunderstanding?


Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books, in English, Dutch and German, are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:

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