High Water (For Charley Patton)

Dylan’s “High Water (For Charley Patton)”  is based on three chords but in effect two of the three chords are just used in passing at the end of each verse to the line “High water everywhere”.  As a result virtually all of what we hear is set around one chord, and thus a major emphasis is placed on the lyrics and melody.  Indeed it is remarkable that Dylan does manage to keep the tension and interest running through this song – not least because of the sparse accompaniment that is used.

The song takes the title of Charley Patton’s song, but there is no real relation between the songs apart from their subject matter – and even there it is hard to see if Dylan is really focussed on what Patton was singing about.

Patton’s piece is a blues, but with variable length lines to accommodate an intermittent spoken commentary, while Dylan’s is slower and more regular and is as much a focus on racism as on the floods.  The line “It’s tough out there; high water everywhere” thus seems to have a much broader context.

Fortunately you can readily hear the Patton song readily on You Tube


The lyrics of the original are published at the end of this review and I would recommend you might have them with you when listening to the Patton song – not because of any cleverness on my part but because it is not always easy to follow the lyrics in the original.

Dylan’s work is laced with references.  The first is Big Joe Turner, the blues singer with the astounding voice, whose recording of Shake Rattle and Roll was just one of his many hits

The Reformation comment is puzzling – is that really a reference to the religious transformation of Martin Luther etc.  The  “you dance with whom they tell you to or you don’t dance at all” line makes sense in this context, as clearly the Reformation was about who had authority on Earth to interpret God’s word, but it just seems to pop out of nowhere, and I wonder what I have missed here.  There is one possibility – I have seen a lyric set which says “Bertha Mason” rather than “Reformation”.  Bertha Mason is the mad lady from Jayne Ayre.  Sadly this still doesn’t get me any further.

Kansas City’s reference is easier: it is a line from the song of the same name, which Fats Domino, among many others, had hits with.  It opens, “I’m going to Kansas City, Kansas City here I come”.

And it gets odder for after that there is the pig without a wig verse.  The only reference I have here is Thomas Hodd (The Wise Little Pig).

Where are you going, you little pig?
“I’m going to the barber’s to buy me a wig.”

A wig, little pig!
A pig in a wig!

Why, whoever before saw a pig in a wig?

What the song does have however (even if we can’t make sense of them) are these extraordinary images created out of everyday speech.  I have mentioned above “you dance with whom they tell you to or you don’t dance at all”.  Now we have “Don’t reach out for me, she said, can’t you see I’m drowning too”.  They are symbolic representations of change – and goodness, to me at least (even if no one else) they have one hell of an impact.

But it is about this point I start to wonder if we are supposed to make sense of this song any more than we make sense of a Jackson Pollock painting.  We have George Lewis – but which George Lewis and why?  The composer?  The clarinettist?  Some other George Lewis that is central to the battle for equality in the southern US, but who I don’t know (I am English, and although I do try to take in US history and social development, I’m never going to know as much as an American citizen, so maybe I have missed something obvious).

And even when I do make some sense of all this, I am guessing.  The Charles Darwin reference looks easy enough – a reference to fundamentalist Christians who take the Bible literally and therefore see Darwin’s work On the Origin of Species, as such an awful book (while most people find it a total revelation).  But why Darwin on Highway 5? I have no idea.  I’ve managed to make sense out of Highway 61, the Blues Highway, in the review of Highway 61 Revisited, but this reference is beyond me.

The cuckoo reference is from an old folk song (which in part may date from the work of John Clare – which I know because I live in Northamptonshire, in England, and John Clare is just about the only famous person in history associated with the county).   Then there’s the Robert Johnson reference I’m getting’ up in the morning, I believe I’ll dust my broom which is thrown in – and Clarksdale Mississippi is at the intersection of Highway 61 (here we are again) and Highway 49 – the location of Johnson selling his soul to the devil.   Since the line is followed by “everything a looking blue” we can be sure we are on the right trail at this point, if nowhere else.

So, some guesswork, and some bits where I am lost.  Here’s the original.  The lines in brackets and italics are spoken in a different voice.

Well, backwater done rose all around Sumner now,
drove me down the line
Backwater done rose at Sumner,
drove poor Charley down the line
Lord, I’ll tell the world the water,
done crept through this town

Lord, the whole round country,
Lord, river has overflowed
Lord, the whole round country,
man, is overflowed
(You know I can’t stay here,
I’ll go where it’s high, boy)

I would go to the hilly country,
but, they got me barred

Now, look-a here now at Leland
river was risin’ high
Look-a here boys around Leland tell me,
river was raisin’ high
(Boy, it’s risin’ over there, yeah)
I’m gonna move to Greenville
fore I leave, goodbye

Look-a here the water now, Lordy,
Levee broke, rose most everywhere
The water at Greenville and Leland,
Lord, it done rose everywhere
(Boy, you can’t never stay here )
I would go down to Rosedale
but, they tell me there’s water there

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

I am goin’ up that water,
where lands don’t never flow
Well, I’m goin’ over the hill where,
water, oh don’t ever flow
(Boy, hit Sharkey County and everything was down in Stovall )
But, that whole county was leavin’,
over that Tallahatchie shore  (Boy,
went to Tallahatchie and got it over there)

Lord, the water done rushed all over,
down old Jackson road
Lord, the water done raised,
over the Jackson road
(Boy, it starched my clothes)
I’m goin’ back to the hilly country,
won’t be worried no more



  1. Whether it’s “Reformation” or “Bertha Mason”, the rest of the word in that couplet are from the Charley Patton song “Shake It, Break It”(with a tense change):

    “Bertha Mason shook it—broke it
    Then she hung it on a wall”

    (Lyrics from the Dylan website.)

  2. Movie – Dead Man:

    Robert Mitchum:
    “I want him brought here to me….alive or dead…don’t matter…..though I reckon dead would be easier”

  3. Well, the High Sheriff told his deputy
    I want him dead or alive
    Lord, Lord
    Bring him dead or alive
    (Poor Lazarus)

  4. Bertha Mason, a mad woman likely of mixed race in the Bronte novel, would fit in with “Social Darwinism” which justified racism.

  5. Bertha Mason shook it, broke it, then she hung it on the wall
    Says, “You’re dancing with whom they tell you to, or you don’t dance at all”

    She could not leave her number, but I know who placed the call
    ‘Cause my uncle took the message, and he wrote it on the wall

  6. In Dylan’s notebook, but not included in the final version of High Water, a reference to Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener:

    Not a wrinkle of agitation rippled him

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