High Water part 12: You can never tell why someone’s gonna stick something in a song


High Water (for Charley Patton) (2001) part 12

by Jochen Markhorst

XII        You can never tell why someone’s gonna stick something in a song

The Cuckoo is a pretty bird, she warbles as she flies
I’m preachin’ the word of God
I’m puttin’ out your eyes
I asked Fat Nancy for something to eat, she said, “Take it off the shelf—
As great as you are, man,
You’ll never be greater than yourself.”
I told her I didn’t really care
High water everywhere

 On 5 March 2008, the theme of episode 71 of Theme Time Radio Hour is “Birds” and on the playlist at No 6 is not Clarence Ashley’s 1929 primal version of “The Coo Coo Bird”, but Ashley’s 1961 re-recording. Re-recorded, DJ Dylan tells us, as Clarence was dissatisfied with his playing on that old recording. “He said he had to practice it to perfection. Well, it sounds pretty good to me.”

And a few moments later, we then hear Clarence singing The coo coo is a pretty bird, she warbles as she flies. A listener from Bloomington, Indiana, calls the radio studio ten minutes after. Charles has a substantive question about that song. He wonders what Ashley means by that date, why the bird “never hollers coo coo ’til the fourth day of July”. What do I know, says DJ Dylan:

“If I had to guess, I’d guess it had more do with Clarence Ashley. Perhaps the Fourth of July was important to him for some reason. Maybe it was somebody’s birthday, or the day his wife walked out of him. You can never tell why someone’s gonna stick something in a song. You just gotta remember that the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts. You can’t expect to understand everything in every song.”

It’s a fascinating response from the DJ, and he does seem to be talking more about himself than about Clarence Ashley. Dylan obviously knows very well that Ashley did not write the song himself, so this blindly shooting at supposed birthdays or divorce dates makes no sense either. True, the date may not be found in the English primal versions from the 18th century, but “fourth of July” is presumably an American addition from the 19th century – older than Ashley, in any case.

It therefore has every appearance that Dylan is only staging this little act, this radio play featuring a dial-up listener from Bloomington with that nerdy question, to air something about his own philosophy of the modern song. In itself, of course, the statement You can’t expect to understand everything in every song is an art declaration that does fit into a consistent, long-running series. From the bitchy “I’m sick of people asking what does it mean. It means NOTHING!” (Royal Albert Hall, 27 May 1966) and “I mean, they’re just songs” (Eliot Mintz interview, 1991) to “All my stuff is rhythmically orientated” (Paul Zollo interview for SongTalk, 1991), “All that profound meaning stuff-that comes later. Believe me, the songwriter isn’t thinking of any of those things” (interview with John Elderfield for Bob Dylan’s The Asia Series catalogue, 2011) and the ultimate confession from the 2016 Nobel Prize lecture: “I don’t know what it means, either. But it sounds good. And you want your songs to sound good.”

Still, it is precisely this 2008 statement by the DJ in relation to this very song that makes this one variation on Dylan’s conception of art more remarkable than all those other confessions that say essentially the same thing: the DJ Dylan makes this comment seven years after he recorded “High Water (For Charley Patton)” at Clinton Recording Studios at 653 10th Avenue, in the heart of Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, on Thursday 17 May 2001. “High Water”, the mosaic song with plenty of alienating verse fragments, and among them this opening of the sixth verse, the opening taken word-for-word, in its entirety, from Ashley’s version of “The Coo Coo Bird”.

The song, like “Po’ Lazarus”, is deep under Dylan’s skin. “The Cuckoo Is A Pretty Bird” (or: “The Coo Coo Bird”) is on his setlist as early as November 1961, at the Carnegie Chapter Hall concert, and still is in October 1962 (Gaslight Café, New York). Like almost all artists who record the song, Dylan fiddles around with the order of the verses, with the number of verses and even with the content; Dylan’s version is the only variant with the verse

I wish I was a poet
And could write a fine hand
I’d write my love a letter
Lord, she would understand.

Bob Dylan – Poor Lazarus: … a surprising insertion copied from “Pretty Saro”, the song he ventures into during the Self Portrait sessions in March 1970, which we don’t get to hear until the 2013 release of The Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait. On it, he also sings the subsequent closing lines:

If I was a poet and could write a fine hand
I'd write my love a letter that she'd understand
And write it by the river where the waters overflow
But I dream of Pretty Saro wherever I go

… with which, via the hopscotch step Coo Coo Bird – Pretty Saro, we are back to overflowing waters, to “High Water”. And if we also make the jump after the hop step, we finally arrive at the one and only “George Lewis”, the Great Unknown from the fifth verse of “High Water”. During these same months in 1961 that Dylan has “The Cuckoo Is A Pretty Bird” and “Po’ Lazarus” in his repertoire, he also plays and sings the antique murder ballad “Omie Wise”.

“Omie Wise” is one of those murder ballads based on a real, horrific event – the cowardly murder of naive, smitten, nineteen-year-old Naomi Wise, who gets impregnated by the untrustworthy good-for-nothing Jonathan Lewis and is therefore lured away by him in April 1807, knocked down and thrown into the Deep River, near Randleman in North Carolina, with her hands and feet tied. Naomi drowns; her body is found three days later.

According to lore, shortly after her death the tragic story is cast in a ballad that soon becomes popular and today is considered North Carolina’s most important contribution to America’s treasure chest of songs. In 2019, the North Randolph Historical Society will receive the grant to place a so-called “historic marker” in Randleman, on the street now called W Naomi Street:

north carolina folklife institute
william g. pomeroy foundation 2019

The ballad exists – of course – in dozens of variants. Naomi is called Omie, Annie, Oma, Roney, Romey, Ommie or Noma, the killer is sometimes called Jonathan and usually John, as in both Dylan recordings we know (Riverside Church 29 July ’61, just before “Po’ Lazarus”, and on The Minneapolis Hotel Tape, December ’61), but the echo we hear in “High Water” comes from the LP Dylan listened to more than once, Tom Paley’s Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachian Mountains from 1953.

Bob Dylan – Naomi Wise (1961)

In his early New York years, Dylan gets to know Tom Paley when Paley is a member of The New Lost City Ramblers, he learns “Love Henry” and “Jack-A-Roe” from him, which Dylan will record for World Gone Wrong in 1993, and from Paley’s solo-album he also copies the fourth song from Side B, “Girl On The Grianbriar Shore”, which he will play twice as “The Girl On The Greenbriar Shore” in 1992 (and which eventually will be released on the unsurpassed The Bootleg Series Vol. 8 – Tell Tale Signs: Rare and Unreleased 1989-2006). And right before that fourth song on Side B is track 3, “Deep Water” – Tom Paley’s version of “Omie Wise”;

Then Romy was missin’, no more to be found
The people to seek her were all gathered ’round
Then up spoke her mother, in her words was a sting
No one but George Lewis could have done such a thing

… with which, after Charley Patton and Big Joe Turner, “Didn’t It Rain” and “London Bridge Is Falling Down”, the Stanley Brothers and Woody Guthrie, “Shake It And Break It” and “Hopped-Up Mustang”, Jimmy Dean and Henry Rollins, “As I Went To Bonner” and “Vicksburg Blues”, “When The Levee’s Gonna Break”, “Po’ Lazarus” and “The Cuckoo Is A Pretty Bird”, after all those different shiny tesserae, we’ll get the next pebble in the multi-coloured, fascinating, encompassing mosaic Dylan constructs with “High Water”: George Lewis leads us to the next tile, to the little gem “Omie Wise”.

And still the mosaic is not finished…


To be continued. Next up High Water (For Charley Patton) part 13: The sum of its parts


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. The Cuckoo Bird song is performed by Dylan in the “Madhouse on Castle Street” play (1962).
    A cuckoo’s known for laying eggs in another bird’s nest.

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