High Water part 9: I just thought that was the way he spelled his name

by Jochen Markhorst


IX         I just thought that was the way he spelled his name

Well, George Lewis told the Englishman, the Italian and the Jew
“Don’t open up 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

 After an exhausting run-up, during which George stood in the long queue for the entrance tickets, then had to wait a long time in the line for the cloakroom to hand over the coats, then another ten minutes at the counter to buy the obligatory tokens of consumption, Lewis and he are finally in the festively decorated ballroom. “I’d fancy a drink,” says Lewis, “do they have punch?” Sighing, George leaves for the bar area – but within a minute he is back, with two glasses. “There’s no punch line!”

An old joke and a bit lame as well. Which, as we all know, rarely stops Dylan. The jokes and puns he occasionally serves from the stage, every now and then in a song and a bit more often as DJ in Theme Time Radio Hour, rarely excel in originality or freshness. And occasionally fall dead too – deliberately, as we know thanks to Larry Charles’ anecdote about his aborted attempt to write a slapstick comedy with Dylan (“what’s so bad about misunderstanding?”). Dylan does like some disruptive absurdism, the confusion that sets in after an incomprehensible metaphor like I can bite like a turkey, an unusual word combination like Anne Frank and Indiana Jones or a joke without a punchline.

It is an effect the poet seems to be aiming for in the first verse line of this fifth stanza. The stanza begins with an opening variation of a classic, corny joke, with an alienating variation on an Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishman walk into a bar or a Belgian, a Dutchman and a German stand at the gates of heaven. But here they are an Englishman, an Italian and a Jew, and the stooge is not a barman or Peter, but “George Lewis”, with peculiar life advice as an introduction – the advice that you should not be open to every opinion.

It’s a layered, and perhaps somewhat laborious interlude, in this fifth verse of “High Water”. Layered, because Dylan not only messes with the listener’s expectation by incorporating a punchless joke, but also by suggesting depth through the introduction of Charles Darwin and George Lewis. Both names, and especially “George Lewis”, do put Google to work, in any case. And analysing Dylanologists and researching fans then initially have to gulp; the combination George and Lewis gets 328 million hits, the unit “George Lewis” still 1.7 million. Somewhere at the top of the search results, then are – promising – two musical George Lewises; a rather successful jazz clarinetist from New Orleans (1900-1968) and a younger one, a 1952 Chicago-born experimental avant-garde composer and trombonist George Lewis, at least as successful. But alas: apart from living off music, there is no line to Dylan or Dylan’s oeuvre, let alone to Charles Darwin, Highway 5 or being Jewish, Italian or whatnot.

Rather eagerly, therefore, the thesis that Dylan made a spelling mistake and actually means George Lewes is gratefully embraced, a “solution” presumably first offered by Brian Hinton (Bob Dylan Complete Discography, 2006). Lewes, admittedly, indeed is an interesting nineteenth-century man. Philosopher, literary critic and – there’s the bridge – darwinist, but actually better known as the-husband-of; his life partner Mary Ann Evans wrote, under the pen name George Eliot Middlemarch, “the greatest novel in the English language” (according to Martin Amis). Lewes is also mentioned in it, by the way. He is even the first name:

To my dear Husband, George Henry Lewes,
in this nineteenth year of our blessed union

It’s tempting to grant this George Lewes a misspelled name-check in “High Water”, true. But alas, that bridge really is far too shaky. After all, we’ve never been able to catch Dylan on such a mistake tending towards dyslexia. At most, the added g in John Wesley Harding comes close, but no: “I just thought that was the way he spelled his name” (Cameron Crowe Interview for Biograph, 1985). Other spelling errors in Lyrics, such as the apparently ineradicable Pharoah (in “When The Ship Comes In”), seem to be attributable not to Dylan, but to editors or transcribers. And besides: the only remarkable thing about the name George Lewes is that last e – if you’re already prone to spelling mistakes, that attention-grabbing e is precisely the letter you would write. Creative the solution is, though. But also perhaps a little too inviting. Inviting to suppose other spelling mistakes and understand, for instance, “George Louis” (the name of King George I, 1660-1727). Or, why not, “Jorge Luis” (Borges, the literary giant of short stories from Argentina); Gregory Lewis the actor; Jörg Liebenfels, the racist ariosopher and forerunner of Hitler; Gregor Lässer, a lawyer in Austria and so on and so forth… no, maybe it’s not so fruitful after all to take the shortcut, or rather: bypass to supposed spelling mistakes in text analysis and then base vistas on what Dylan “actually meant to write”. And maybe we should stick close to home and invite Jerry Lee Lewis in, for instance. Or even closer to home, to Appalachian folk music.

Comparably cumbersome are the attempts to discern a deeper layer beneath the trio Englishman + Italian + Jew. The Christian faction among the Dylan exegetes – naturally – looks for religious connotations and then finds something like Englishman = Protestant, Italian = Catholic and Jew = Jewish. Which would thus give the subsequent life wisdom of George Lewis a somewhat fundamentalist connotation – after all, his message that you shouldn’t be open to everything then implies that there still is something worthy of your devotion, but other somethings are not. Frighteningly close to, in fact, the fundamentalist creep who was given a stage some thirty years before “High Water”, in “Precious Angel” (Slow Train Coming, 1979); “Ya either got faith or ya got unbelief and there ain’t no neutral ground.”

Apart from that, it is unlikely that Dylan’s poetic instinct would allow him to combine metaphorical use of “Englishman” and “Italian” with the unequivocal, unambiguous “Jew” – a literary man would then choose “Israeli” or, more likely, George Lewis told the priest, the vicar and the rabbi, something like that anyway. On top of that: if the poet already has the wondrous impulse to integrate universal, religious contemplation into a lyric like “High Water”, Islam would be an inevitable contender. And we had heard something like George Lewis told Harry, Mohammed and Yehudi.

No, all in all, Occam’s razor dictates that we have to accept meaninglessness; we know the poet’s penchant for suggestion and for absurdism, we have heard Dylan’s colleague Larry Charles testify that the writer Dylan has no problem with pointless, alienating inserts, a dose of which we also got two stanzas ago (“I’m no pig without a wig”), and every attempt at contextualization is shipwrecked. At most, locating a source may shed some light. “James Joyce” seems to be a key. The name pops up in the manuscript, in the original third stanza, in which Dylan, in the creation phase, crosses out the second line and writes in big blue letters, partly capitals, a first alternative: “James Joyce just walked in the door like he’d been in a whirlwind”.

Well, not inconceivable. Indeed, there are some more faint echoes from Joyce’s most famous novel, Ulysses (1922), in this verse of Dylan’s song (“High Sheriff”, for instance, and “Charles Darwin”). In the beginning of the novel, on page 17, protagonist Stephen Dedalus says I am a servant of two masters, an English and an Italian, and a third, and explains on the very same page: “The imperial British state, Stephen answered, his colour rising, and the holy Roman catholic and apostolic church.” With which interlocutor Haines is willing to go along, to some extent: “I don’t want to see my country fall into the hands of German jews either. That’s our national problem, I’m afraid, just now.” In itself too thin to qualify for the honourable stamp “Dylan source”, but that James Joyce name-check in the manuscript at the very least does justify the idea that Ulysses is floating around in Dylan’s stream of consciousness at this stage of his creative process, so who knows.

On the other hand: Jerry Lee, no, George Lewis firmly states that we shouldn’t open up our mind to every conceivable point of view, so there’s that.


To be continued. Next up High Water (For Charley Patton) part 10: The Return of Jerry Lee


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:



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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