High Water (for Charley Patton) (2001) part 6: The Levee’s Gonna Break


High Water (for Charley Patton) (2001) part 6

by Jochen Markhorst

VI         The Levee’s Gonna Break

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 going 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

We don’t need to worry about the artistic legacy of The Who’s bassist John Entwistle. It’ll be fine; the musical contributions and especially the revolutionary, overwhelming style of Thunderfingers will be admired and studied for another century or so. In the visual collective memory, Entwistle probably won’t linger that long, though. Both on stage and in the clips, the Ox acts like your local undertaker, as Bill Wyman put it, and nothing ever changes about that – not even when he is the frontman of the John Entwistle Band in the 1990s.

The exception is John’s unforgettable one-act play in the rockumentary The Kids Are Alright (1979), the scene in which Entwistle descends the stairs in his decadent Victorian mansion Quarwood, affectionately caresses some of the hundreds of guitars hanging there along walls and on stair balustrades, plucks a dozen or so gold records from the wall and then has them placed in the pitching machine to be abused as clay pigeons. As the soundtrack plays “Success Story”, John shouts “pull!”. When he has missed for the third time, we can actually see an inkling of emotion on his face. Not for long; unmoved, Thunderfingers puts away his double-barrel, and the fourth gold record is splintered to smithereens in the barrage fired from John’s antique tommygun with 100-round drum magazine. That image is bound to linger a bit longer than his stage presence.

And a third claim to eternal fame is one for the rock archivists: the apocryphal story that The Quiet One of The Who came up with the band name for Led Zeppelin.

In the aftermath of recording “Beck’s Bolero”, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, John Entwistle and Keith Moon find themselves in a rehearsal room in the late 1960s. Page dreams of detaching Keith Moon from The Who and starting a supergroup. Keith Moon, who rarely takes anything seriously, says that “the project would go down like a lead balloon,” and Entwistle makes the pun Lead Zeppelin. Well, could be. Entwistle, a keen illustrator and art collector might have been touched by the ingrained chiaroscuro of the name – similar to names like Iron Butterfly or Guns ‘n’ Roses or Dark Star. And in another scenario Entwistle himself was even at the root of the find, if tour manager Richard Cole is to be believed;

“Entwistle said, according to Cole, “Yeah. We’ll call it Lead Zeppelin. Because it’ll fucking go over like a lead balloon.” Moon roared out his maniacal bray, and Richard Cole told Jimmy about the idea the minute he got back to the hotel.”
(Hammer Of The Gods – Stephen Davis, 1985)

Then again, Cole has quite a reputation, and his contributions to Stephen Davis’ infamous band biography have not exactly improved that reputation.

Whether Led Zeppelin led Dylan’s swirling stream of association to lead balloon is dubious – but the little-used phrase at this place in Dylan’s song is alienating enough to go looking for clues. “High Water” has seven stanzas, and only the second and this fourth stanza of “High Water” add any substance to that suggested “flood catastrophe” theme. In the second verse rather indirectly, by mentioning sliding shacks and fleeing people, and in this verse very explicitly; water rising six inches overhead, coffins, and water flowing into Vicksburg. But substantively then, the phrase going down like a lead balloon has no tangent at all to the insinuated apocalyptic circumstances – so it must almost have flowed into Dylan’s creative vein via a poetic tributary.

A second Led Zeppelin association offers the mention of Clarksdale in the last verse. Clarksdale is, of course, by itself the holy grail of the blues, as the site of the crossroads, the intersection of Highway 49 and Highway 61 where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil, as the town where Willie Dixon was born, where W.C. Handy discovered the blues when somewhere around 1914 he heard “a lean, loose-jointed Negro” on a platform singing and playing Goin’ where the Southern cross’ the Dog, the city where Muddy Waters spent his youth. Plus, Clarksdale is the setting in songs from the canon by greats like Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Charlie Musselwhite and Charley Patton. But Dylan’s stream of thoughts may also meander past the title track of Led Zeppelin’s “sort-of-comeback record”, the successful 1998 album Walking Into Clarksdale by frontmen Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, so released shortly before Dylan writes “High Water” – an album filled with strong songs and lyrics full of respectful historical awareness plus a pinch of mysticism that a poetic bluesman like Dylan would not be ashamed of either;

A shiny neon riverboat taking income from the poor
It's floating by the levee in an artificial pool
There's a six mile tailback back on junction 304
A stranger at the crossroads, believe I've seen his face before

And just as thin is the line from Dylan’s song to Led Zeppelin’s indestructible masterpiece “When The Levee Breaks”, the 1971 finale of Led Zeppelin IV, the song with one of the twentieth century’s most intense intros and featuring Bonham’s monumental drumming – from which a whole generation of millennials are now experiencing an onslaught of childhood sentiment: “Beastie Boys!” (the Upper West Side boys with superbly acted street credibility sampled the drum part for “Rhymin’ and Stealin'”, 1986).

A line that, on reflection, is not so very thin after all; Jimmy Page reworked Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy’s 1929 country blues song “When The Levee Breaks”, the landmark that Dylan will also rework, into “The Levee’s Gonna Break” (2008, Modern Times, as usual without citing its source). Written by Kansas Joe McCoy, one of Wilbur McCoy’s many stage names. “Big Joe McCoy” is another, circling back to the first verse of Dylan’s “High Water”; to Big Joe Turner who managed to make it to Kansas City.

The last dyke the Dylan researcher would then actually have to lay, trying to lead all the meandering rivers into the mighty stream “High Water”, would be the one to McCoy Turner, but oh well – we can’t really justify any more crookedness without getting into trouble with the Clarksdale Water Authority’s Dyke Building and Construction Supervision Department. That levee wouldn’t hold anyway.

To be continued. Next up High Water (For Charley Patton) part 7: Greetings from Vicksburg

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:





One comment

  1. In hard-to-read Dylan notebook, the lyrics and structure of the song suggested to some degree.


    High water rising, shacks are shaking around
    Things are sliding into view in town
    High water rising, trees are sliding down
    Joe Turner, he got away
    Impatient, he had to be that way
    Got to Kansas City, but couldn’t find no place to play
    Went to Kansas City, but they say
    Nothing’s standing there, high water everwhere

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