High Water part 11: “De ballit I like bes’, though, is de one ’bout po’ Laz-us”

High Water (for Charley Patton) (2001) part 11

by Jochen Markhorst

XI         “De ballit I like bes’, though, is de one ’bout po’ Laz-us”

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

“It was not long until Burn-Down, sitting in his corner, was ringed with a group of listeners who leaned over and encouraged him when he brought forth a particularly apt or lewd aphorism.”

Alan Lomax, the son and assistant and torch-bearer of the legendary musicologist and folklorist with inestimable merits for the preservation of American folk music, John Lomax, has even more literary talent than his father.

His ballad-hunting stories are fascinating enough in their own right because of the couleur locale, the self-evident tone and the casual way with which Alan describes the bizarre living conditions of black people on plantations, in prisons and in nightlife, and are all the more captivating because of his writing style; Alan, although an observer and an archivist, usually creates an attractive tension arc in his essays, lacing them with mild irony, witty asides and poetic metaphors. Never disrespectful, by the way. Brutal manners and racist shouting from prison staff and plantation owners he portrays commentlessly and clinically. A plantation manager intervenes when “One-Eye Charley” is too bashful to sing: “Wait a minute, you lyin’ black rascal, you. You can sing an’ you know it.” But the descriptions of the appearance and character of the negroes are colourful and friendly. In the plantation’s “school-house” that evening, the black field workers are called together to provide songs for Lomax and his little recording Dictaphone:

“As the excitement of the music grew in him, he began to shout out the verses and his crazy old “box” began to jump and shake under the pounding rhythm; his muddied brown eyes took light and flashed in his sallow face as if there were rising up in him some fierce and consuming passion.”
(‘Sinful’ Songs of the Southern Negro, Southwest Review, January 1934)

Or his loving portrait of “Bat” with the beautiful soprano voice: “Her skin was golden yellow. Her broad-brimmed straw hat sat far back on a kinky head, and from beneath it across her forehead stuck out two stiff, black pigtails.”

The ballad-hunting begins in Texas, takes father and son to Mississippi and then in July 1933 to Louisiana, to the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, where they make their greatest discovery: Huddie William Ledbetter, Lead Belly. A discovery to which we owe “Cotton Fields”, the song that converted Dylan to folk (And that record changed my life right then and there, Nobel Prize speech), “Goodnight Irene”, and “Frankie And Albert”, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” and “Midnight Special” and whatnot.

Alan tells how Lead Belly introduces himself boastfully (“I is the king of the twelve-string-guitar players of the worl’”), but then right away lives up to his boast with a breathtaking song, “Ella Speed”. After the closing line An’ he hung down his head an’ he cry, Huddie switches gears. “The ballit I like bes’, though, is the one ’bout po’ Laz-us. Laz-us was a levee-camp roller,” he announces, and then sings the words we hear descending some seventy years later in Dylan’s “High Water”:

High sheriff tole de deputy,
“Go out an’ bring me Laz’us,
Bring him dead or alive,
Lawd, Lawd, bring him dead or alive.”

“Dat a mighty pitiful song, ain’t it?” says Lead Belly after the last line, not dissatisfied. Dylan’s addition Either one, I don’t care after “dead or alive” then adds a not unwitty extra layer; after all, with Lazarus, the second-most-famous from-the-death resurrectee of all time, it indeed doesn’t matter whether you capture him dead or alive; he gets back up anyway, history teaches.

That Lead Belly’s “Po’ Lazarus” is under Dylan’s skin, and thus the most obvious purveyor of this verse, is beyond doubt. It is one of the five songs he put on his setlist on his radio debut on WRVR-FN Radio on the Saturday Of Folk Music programme, on 29 July 1961. We all know the confident, rough and rowdy version on the so-called Minnesota Hotel Tape that the very young Dylan let out in December of the same year 1961, as well as the 1967 recording, the one-minute snippet on The Bootleg Series 11: The Basement Tapes Complete (2014). A few years after The Basement Dylan copies the repeated “Lawd lawd”-moaning on to “George Jackson”, and there is a further, weaker echo in the receptivity of the name of song number 10 on “Love And Theft”, “Po’ Boy” (although – obviously – the echo of Bukka White’s 1939 “Po’ Boy” is much stronger and more direct).

Very mysterious it is not, the surfacing of Lead Belly and “Po’ Lazarus” in this fifth verse of “High Water”. Content-wise, there is absolutely no common ground, of course. “Po’ Lazarus”, as Ledbetter patiently explains to Lomax, is a ballad about the hunt for the murderous thief Lazarus who refuses to surrender and is then shot by the High Sheriff. Definitely dead, in Lead Belly’s version. Though in the version recorded by Alan Lomax in 1959 at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Lambert, sung by James Carter and the Prisoners, the version used in 2000 for the brilliant Coen Brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Lazarus’ corpse is indeed delivered and deposited at the “commissary gallery”, but:

Well then they take dead old Lazarus
Yes they laid him on the commissary gallery
Well they taken poor Lazarus
And they laid him on the commissary gallery
He said “my wounded side,
Lawd, lawd, my wounded side”

… on that porch, the corpse comes back to life, and speaks the words of Jesus, who at his resurrection quite likely still must have suffered from the stab wound in his side.

And its use in the Coen Brothers film has another, particularly fun, coda: John Lomax’ granddaughter Anna, the manager of the Alan Lomax Archive, and producer T-Bone Burnett make every effort to find James Carter, who indeed turns out to be alive, who – understandably – can’t remember a thing from that recording forty years ago and who to his surprise is allowed to accept a check for $20,000. Really stunned, however, he is upon learning that the album sells better than the latest CD’s of Mariah Carey and Michael Jackson. Once he’s processed that, he expresses his desire to reassure The Prince of Pop: “You tell Michael that I’ll slow down so that he can catch up with me.”

No connection to “High Water”, all in all. But that Charley Patton is stored roughly in the same corner of Dylan’s musical memory as Lead Belly, who also recorded flood songs like “Backwater Blues” and “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep”, that does seem likely.

Incidentally, the use of “Po’ Lazarus” also offers, retrospectively and with some tolerance, a third or fourth key to pinpointing that Great Unknown in this song, “George Lewis” – the name seems a slight remodelling, an acoustic echo of “John Lomax” both in terms of rhythm and timbre and syllables. However: atypical of Dylan and a little too far-fetched. But we do get close – the currents beneath the surface of Dylan’s stream of consciousness churn; after all, the levee is broken, the Waters of Association swirl in unpredictable maelstroms, and all around us we see the floaters, the floating corpses of tragically drowned girls…


To be continued. Next up High Water (For Charley Patton) part 12: You can never tell why someone’s gonna stick something in a song


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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