High Water (for Charley Patton) (2001) part 7: Greetings from Vicksburg

by Jochen Markhorst

VII        Greetings from Vicksburg

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
Greetings From Mississippi Vicksburg

He may be somewhat forgotten, but lasting footprints in music history Little Brother Montgomery (1906-1985) did leave anyway. In 1930, the blues and boogiewoogie pianist recorded the instrumental, irresistible “Crescent City Blues”, which was pimped up and given lyrics by the legendary Gordon Jenkins in 1953. Jenkins invited his wife Beverly Mahr behind the microphone, and she sings:

I hear the train a-comin, it's rolling 'round the bend
And I ain't been kissed lord since I don't know when
The boys in Crescent City don't seem to know I'm here
That lonesome whistle seems to tell me, Sue, disappear

… and apart from the music, the next three stanzas sound just as over-familiar, with verses like When I was just a baby my mama told me, Sue and I see the rich folks eatin’ in that fancy dining car, not to mention the final couplet:

If I owned that lonesome whistle, if that railroad train was mine
I bet I'd find a man a little farther down the line
Far from Crescent City is where I'd like to stay
And I'd let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away

Gordon Jenkins/ Beverly MahrCrescent City Blues:

Yes, indeed: Gordon Jenkins’ arrangement of “Crescent City Blues” is from front to back the template for one of 20th century’s most majestic monuments, for Johnny Cash’s 1955 “Folsom Prison Blues”. Which Cash won’t honour without a fight, by the way. The lawyers cross swords and, after some sabre-rattling, it isn’t until 14 years later, in 1969, that finally a settlement high enough ($75,000) is reached to buy Jenkins off. Cynically, the song’s founding father, Little Brother Montgomery, is not even mentioned – an injustice he shares with exploited peers like Chuck Berry and Arthur Crudup.

And a second milestone is set by Little Brother Montgomery with “Vicksburg Blues”, the ode to the town on the Mississippi for which history has not always been kind;

I got the Vicksburg Blues and I sing 'em and ache everywhere I go
I got the Vicksburg Blues and I sing 'em and ache where I go
And the reason I sing 'em is my baby didn't want me know more

… writes and sings Eurreal Wilford Montgomery in the 1920s, and the song, or rather Vicksburg, continues to fascinate him. In 1976, when he has been living in Chicago for almost 50 years, he gets a visit from the BBC, and he still plays the “Vicksburg Blues” in the living room, though now with new lyrics:

Now when I went down Mulberry, boys, and I turned up Clay,
Now when I went down Mulberry, hey boys, and I turned up Clay,
I was looking for my baby, but she had moved away.
Some say she moved round on Walnut, well, 
                                  and some say she moved out on Vine,
Some say she moved round on Walnut, and some say she moved out on Vine,
Now wherever she wails, partner, she’s resting on my mind.

Little Brother Montgomery – Vicksburg Blues (Chicago 1976): 


… showing that despite a distance of 50 years on the calendar and 800 miles on the map, Eurreal still has Vicksburg’s street plan in sharp focus. He is absolutely right: from Mulberry Street you turn the corner, climbing up Clay Street, second right is Walnut Street, walk all the way to the end and via S Madison Street passing the birthplace of Myra Gale Brown who will marry her cousin Jerry Lee Lewis 13 years after her birth in 1944, and then Monroe Street, you eventually reach Drummond Street: first alley on your right now is Little Brother Montgomery’s final destination, Vine Street. A 0.9-mile, twenty-minute walk. And meanwhile you climb higher and higher, farther and farther away from the flooding Mississippi – starting point Mulberry Street is behind the river embankment, behind the levee, and for safety’s sake no longer has a residential use, Vine Street is a shabby little run-down street with a few tattered shacks, but: it is located at the safest, highest point of Vicksburg.

The opening line seems to have triggered something in Dylan, who opened his very first draft of “High Water” with the remarkable opening verse High water risin’ – putting lime in my face. At least, it seems like Dylan heard and I turned up clay, without a capital letter C – and then the switch to lime in my face is not that wild a paraphrase.

But of course we owe the receptivity to “Vicksburg” and the “Vicksburg Blues” first and foremost to Robert Johnson, to the 1937 monument “Traveling Riverside Blues” (I got women’s in Vicksburg, clean on into Tennessee), which sowed the seeds for Led Zeppelin, Johnny Cash (“I’m Going to Memphis”, with his Bertha living in Vicksburg), Sir Elton (“Dixie Lily” 1974), Mountain’s classic “Mississippi Queen”, Charlie Daniels (“Sweet Louisiana”), Tom Waits (“Don’t Go Into That Barn”, 2004), the evergreen “Catfish John” ( with the chilling line Born a slave in the town of Vicksburg / Traded for a chestnut mare), Rory Gallagher, Hank Snow and the dozens of others who sing of Vicksburg as a setting, crime scene or promised land.

And trendsetter Robert Johnson, like Dylan of course, heard it again from the stepfather of his “High Water”, from Charley Patton himself, in the model for Dylan’s song, in 1929’s “High Water Everywhere”. On the A-side, in “High Water Everywhere, Part 1”:

Now, the water now, mama, done took Charley's town
Well, they tell me the water, done took Charley's town
Boy, I'm goin' to Vicksburg
Well, I'm goin' to Vicksburg,
for that high of mine

Charley Patton – High Water Everywhere Part I: 

Patton’s escape route is much less linear and structured than Little Brother Montgomery’s. Charley goes the 60 miles from Sumner to Leland, then to nearby Greenville, then north to Rosedale, 120 miles back south to Vicksburg, then another 50 miles back north again to Sharkey County (during which he no doubt passed by Muddy Waters’ supposed birthplace in Rolling Fork), 100 miles north past Clarksdale and Friars Point to Stovall, and finally the breathtaking madman’s zigzag journey ends full circle; he goes east, probably with wet feet walking on, via John Lee Hooker’s and Sonny Boy Williamson’s Tutwiler until he is back, back in Sumner, Tallahatchie County, Mississippi.

Don’t know what I’m going to do, we can almost hear him moaning.


To be continued. Next up High Water (For Charley Patton) part 8: The Portable Henry Rollins


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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