High Water part 14: Just grab something off the shelf

High Water (for Charley Patton) (2001) part 14

by Jochen Markhorst

XIV      Just grab something off the shelf

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

To the millennials, it is what Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk is to baby boomers: Rafiki the mandrill on the protruding rock lifting the lion cub Simba high above his head to show him to the assembled animals on the savannah – the image is an identity-defining landmark, an unwearable childhood memory. The deeper layer beneath Rafiki’s action is not seen by millennials but is unmistakable to baby boomers and Generation X: Disney copies the equally iconic scene from the beginning of the first episode of the legendary, groundbreaking 1970s TV series Roots. The scene where father Omoro Kinte takes his just-born son outside, lifting him above his head, into the African night sky, and names him:

“Kunta Kinte. Behold… the only thing that is greater than yourself [he laughs].”

Omoro Names His Son:

You Are Only As Great As You Are (and any variation thereof) is, of course, a fairly empty slogan with high bumper sticker value that has been hijacked by self-help gurus and management book authors since the 1970s, but thanks in part to the staging, the breathtaking starry sky and our foreknowledge of the fate that awaits this cute little baby Kunta, we are still receptive to the suggested profundity of the cliché in this particular case.

Fat Nancy does not reach that level. Not only does her ludicrous nickname disrupt our receptivity to the supposed profundity of her words, the staging is also soberingly banal. The first-person has to get up to grab a snack or something from the shelf, and then, as a bonus, gets snapped at with the astutely intended aphorism “As great as you are, man, you’ll never be greater than yourself” – driven, apparently, by a need on Fat Nancy’s part to put the first-person in his place.

This is the third time in Dylan’s oeuvre that an assertive bar lady is given a supporting role. The first is the lady in a topless bar who picks up the protagonist and makes such a smashing impression with the words of a thirteenth-century Italian poet, “Tangled Up In Blue”, 1975. Twenty-two years later, her colleague in some Boston restaurant gets the spotlight, with word choice (She studies me closely versus She studied the lines on my face, notably) and plot suggesting that the protagonist has the same lady as in “Tangled Up In Blue” in his mind’s eye (“Highlands”, 1997). And four years after that, in this sixth verse of “High Water”, the lady in the tavern is then given a name, “Fat Nancy”, and there is yet another suspicion of déjà vu. The tone, this time.

Each time, the protagonist has a laborious, stumbling dialogue with the lady. In Tangled, the first-person can only mumble unintelligibly at a direct, simple question like, “Don’t I know your name?” and remain uncomfortably silent at an inviting opening like, “I thought you’d never say hello”. In Boston, like in a Kafka story, the conversation stumbles from denial to misunderstanding to rebuttals and back again (“A soft-boiled egg, please.” “We’re out of eggs.” “Make a portrait of me.” “I don’t have paper,” etc.), and that’s also the pattern of this short interlude in “High Water”.

Thanks to published manuscript versions, we know that Fat Nancy’s aphorism is originally a revision in the third stanza, and put there in James Joyce’s mouth. At least, we see added above and between the partly crossed-out black lines in blue:

James Joyce just walked in the door like he’d been in a whirlwind
He said I believe that as great as you are, you’re never

For Dylanologists, it is remarkable. After the sinner’s prayer, which appears in this same third stanza of the manuscript, surviving the initial shuffling but eventually disappearing only to be resuscitated eight years later on Together Through Life, “James Joyce” is also discarded again and will also not reappear again until Together Through Life (in “I Feel a Change Comin’ On”; I’m hearing Billy Joe Shaver / And I’m reading James Joyce).

This back-and-forth shuffling of remarkable verse fragments and notable names from one verse to the next, from one song to the next, and eventually even from one album to the next, does put the sought-after coherence somewhat into perspective. In self-analyses, Dylan has claimed for a couple of decades now that the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts, and in 2020 he even chided interviewer Douglas Brinkley for taking one part out of context. Still, Dylan himself appears to have no problem at all with it in the creative phase; taking both “You’ll never be greater than yourself” and “James Joyce” as well as “sinner’s prayer”, to name just three examples, out of its original context, only to repurpose it in a completely different, utterly incomparable new context.

Which, reasoning back circularly, in this Fat Nancy interlude could ironically be precisely the song poet’s underlying by-play.

“I need something to sing.”
“Just grab something off the shelf – it’s all completely interchangeable anyway.”
“I really don’t care about that.”

Unlikely, though. Text-internal circuits in which Dylan performs something like analysis on his own creative process would be highly atypical; too laborious and even smelling of arrogance and complacency – no, Dylan is allergic to that. The decisive factors for content and word choice of this verse seem to be first and foremost: pleasure in wordplay and euphony. Demonstrated among other things in the choice of the name “Fat Nancy”: a name that could just have been chosen by a young 1967 Dylan in the Basement, merrily, carefree and nonsensically juggling names like “Silly Nelly”, “Moby Dick”, “Skinny Moo” and “Half-track Frank”, shaking colourful protagonists like Tiny Montgomery, Missus Henry and Quinn the Eskimo out of his trouser leg. Naming the big dumb blonde from “Million Dollar Bash” Fat Nancy would fit in seamlessly, at any rate.


To be continued. Next up High Water (For Charley Patton) part 15: “A roulette wheel rolling round in his head”


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. … laborious stumbling dialogue … this time: sitting with a girl named Nancy in a garden feelin’ kind of lazy. He says, “Ya want a gun? I’ll give ya one.” She says, “Boy, you talking crazy”. B-b-boy, ya t-t-talkin craaazy. One of my favourite performed lines.

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