High Water (For Charley Patton)

Introduction

While the flood referred to really did occur in Mississippi in 1927, and was the immediate cause of two hundred thousand African Americans losing their homes, the song can’t be said to be about the flood. The setting is Mississippi, but a number of  temporal inconsistencies prevent its being possible to assign the events to any particular time. The blues singer Big Joe Turner, who figures in the opening verse, was only eleven in 1927 and Darwin, referred to in verse five, was long dead. Furthermore the narrator drives a relatively modern car.

An effect of the anachronisms is to focus attention away from the historical and onto the song’s key themes, one of which is the underlying causes of suffering. To this end a number of characters are made to represent distinct moral points of view. In so doing they function as a foil for the narrator whose journey towards moral regeneration is a central concern of the song.1

This piece is in four main parts as follows, before a brief summing up:

Part 1: Evil
Wealth v Poverty
Bertha Mason
Death
Infidelity
Judicial Corruption

Part 2: Religious Imagery
The Flood
The Sun
Journeys

Part 3: Mental Outlook

Part 4: Solution
Love
Self-reliance


Part 1: Evil

Wealth v Poverty

Human behaviour is the main focus throughout the song. It’s first referred to in the second line:

‘All the gold and silver being stolen away’

One might think that ‘stolen’ refers to the sort of looting one would expect to occur in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. While it may well do so, the language suggests there’s more going on. Why ‘stolen away’ and not just ‘stolen’? The apparently redundant ‘away’ suggests something other than what might seem to be crude looting. ‘Stolen’ rather than simply referring to theft, can refer to the way the owners are protecting their wealth. They are surreptitiously hiding their property – stealing it away, in the manner of someone trying to evade detection.

At the outset of the song the narrator seems to be neither wealthy nor poor. His reference to the gold and silver being stolen away, suggest that it’s being done by others. None of it is his. On the other hand his driving a sports car suggests he’s not himself impoverished.

This puts him in a position to be able to comment objectively on the wealth and poverty around him. In both cases his tone is matter of fact. The reference to ‘All the gold and silver’ suggest its existence is just a fact of life. Similarly by referring to ‘the shacks’ in:

 ‘… the shacks are slidin’ down’,

he implies it’s equally to be accepted that most inhabitants wouldn’t live in proper houses.

A problem with this middle position is that it smacks of complacency. As the song progresses, it will become apparent that the narrator is far from morally blameless. Nevertheless he’s not evil either. Whereas he seems uncritical of those with the gold and silver, he doesn’t attempt to distance himself from the population generally – the friendly tone created by ‘folks’ in:

‘Folks lose their possessions …’

suggesting sympathy.


Bertha Mason

The word ‘shacks’ is echoed in the ‘shook’ of verse two:

‘Bertha Mason shook it – broke it
Then she hung it on a wall’

Bertha Mason is the repressed, half-creole wife in Jane Eyre whose suicidal fire-raising, on one view, represents the social evil to which repression gives rise. She might be directly responsible for her own death, but it would seem that the attitudes of others are at least indirectly responsible. In the song she can be taken as representing the lot of the socially disadvantaged African Americans who, despite the flood, were forced to remain in Mississippi by their landowner employers. The coercion is seemingly alluded to in Bertha’s bitter comment:

‘… “You’re dancin’ with whom they tell you to
Or you don’t dance at all”’

– in response to which the narrator’s matter of fact:

‘It’s tough out there’

seems cruelly complacent.

That the narrator is implicated in the suffering of the black population is indicated by his own comment in verse three:

‘I got a craving love for blazing speed’

The key word is ‘blazing’. The implication is that he, or at least his lifestyle, is responsible for Bertha’s death and for the deaths of those she represents.

Others too are responsible. The ‘all’ at the end of Bertha’s speech reminds us that ‘all the gold and silver were being stolen away’. Implicitly the lack of options represented by not dancing ‘at all’ are being attributed to the selfishness of those with gold and silver.

And Bertha herself can be seen as in part responsible for oppression. Not only is she half white but her comment about dancing can be seen as her being oppressive as much as a response to her own repression.


Death

The ‘slidin down’ of the shacks is echoed in a bizarre description of coffins dropping:

‘Coffins droppin’ in the street
Like balloons made out of lead’

Here  ‘droppin’ may act as a metonym, referring not just to the coffins but to the dead. People are dropping in the street. One imagines it’s the impoverished former inhabitants of the shacks who are dying. The lead balloon simile points to the wrongness of their deaths. Properly treated, the people would be flourishing, not dying.

That society divided into rich and poor is responsible for these deaths is suggested by the absurdity of the phrase ‘coffins droppin’. The metonymic coffins are not literally just dropping, so much as being dropped. Why hide the fact? By omitting to mention it, the narrator seems to be exemplifying a tendency people have to avoid accepting responsibility. The physical death represented by the coffins can thus be seen as a metaphor for moral or spiritual death for which society generally – including the narrator – is responsible.


Infidelity

The idea of flight, contrasting with the downward movement of the shacks and the coffins, is alluded to again in verse six. Here, though, the reference is to something in the ascendancy which shouldn’t be:

‘The cuckoo is a pretty bird, she warbles as she flies.’2

Amongst other things cuckoos are associated with infidelity. The reference is thus to an evil of which the narrator himself seems to approve and may be guilty. The narrator entices women with his flash lifestyle:

‘Jump into the wagon, love …’

For sharing his luxurious lifestyle he expects a payoff:

‘… throw your panties on the board’.

The moral state of the world as represented by the narrator is upside down; infidelity shouldn’t be flying, just as the impoverished shouldn’t be dropping down dead.


Judicial Corruption

A final evil is corruption. Here the reference is to judicial, or perhaps state, corruption:

‘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”’

The Judge – in league with the representatives of the major Christian religions (assuming that that’s what the Englishman, the Italian and the Jew represent) – is exceeding his powers. He’s not only doing so in demanding Darwin be brought in, but is countenancing his possible death, prior to any trial. The Judge is thus part of a corrupt institutional fabric which doesn’t sufficiently respect life.

This is further emphasised by his and his accomplice’s being identified with the destruction brought about by the flood waters. The waters are ‘High’ and the Judge’s accomplice is the ‘High Sheriff’. And it’s ‘Highway Five’ that has been involved in Darwin’s initial detention.


Part 2: Religious Imagery

Eyes

There’s a further corruption which indirectly associates the narrator with the Judge. Following the interpolated line from The Cuckoo the narrator declares:

‘I’m preachin’ the Word of God
I’m puttin’ out your eyes’

The reference is to the fate of the originally strong, but now weak, Samson in Judges 16.21:

‘But the Philistines took him, and put out his eyes, and brought him down to Gaza, and bound him with fetters of brass …’

The narrator might be claiming to preach the Word of God but, it would seem, is in fact behaving like the Philistines behaved to Samson. In his case it’s the weak in society whose suffering he’s helping to bring about.

In the song, the black singer Big Joe Turner’s  mind is a ‘dark room’ suggesting that he has metaphorically had his eyes put by those like the narrator.

That the narrator is behaving like the Philistines is reinforced by his earlier claim that he can:

‘… make a strong man lose his mind’

Samson had been a strong man up to his betrayal and subsequent blinding.3

 It’s ironic that the narrator is putting out people’s eyes since there’s a sense in which he himself is blind. He sees what’s going on as going on ‘out there’ – ‘it’s tough out there’, ‘things are breakin’ up out there’, ‘it’s rough out there’, it’s bad out there’. His perspective is therefore from inside. But since such a perspective has been described as from a ‘dark room’, the narrator’s field of vision will be more limited than he realises. This only changes once he learns to be generous. Only then, in the last verse, will he be able to see things as they really are – ‘lookin’ blue’. While what he sees is not good, the fact that he’s now able to see it is.


The Flood

The flood in the song stands in the same relation to the Mississippi flood as the flood recounted in Genesis does to any actual flood. A real flood in each case has given rise to a myth open to interpretation. The interpretation will need to be different in each case. In Genesis the flood is God’s punishment for evil. In the song it more obviously represents the evil itself – the harm done to ordinary people by the selfishness of others. Nevertheless, some of those responsible for evil are punished too. At one point the narrator has water;

‘… six inches ‘bove my head’

Both accounts have a place for renewal. Noah was able to start populating the world again. And the narrator in the song is able to develop morally.4


The Sun

Immediately from the first line we’re presented with a contrast between the flood water and the sun. The water, ironically sun-like in rising, is continual:

‘… risin’ night and day’.

That there’s no sign of the sun is made apparent from the behaviour of Big Joe Turner who is:

‘… lookin’ east and west
From the dark room of his mind’

He’s presumably searching for the sun since he’s looking to where it rises and sets.

In searching for the sun, Turner is actively searching for a cure for the very blindness which makes it difficult to find. He’s searching, as it were, for a way of redeeming either himself or others. He arrives at Kansas City, the place of the real Turner’s birth,  but until he finds the sun there’ll be no rebirth. His mind will remain dark.

The moral redemption for which he’s searching cannot be completed before the sun rises. The possibility of a sun/Son pun suggests therefore that moral redemption cannot occur before the Son rises. Redemption cannot occur on its own.

To dispel the darkness of his mind, Turner needs to see the sun. Seeing is thus associated with moral regeneration. The narrator too is morally blind when he fails to notice that the woman he wants help from is as much in need of his help:

‘Can’t you see I‘m drownin’ too’

He can’t. On the contrary, he’s a putter-out of eyes. Seeing is not his thing. For that he needs help from the sun. This comes only in the final verse when he at last appreciates that in the colloquial, pejorative sense of ‘blue’:

‘… everything is looking blue’

In another sense it’s perhaps the sky that’s blue because the sun is now out. At any rate he at last realises he has a responsibility for making people happy:

‘I just can’t be happy, love
Unless you’re happy too’


Journeys

Turner is searching for light. He’s only partially successful, it would seem, for his journey ends at Kansas City:

‘He made it to Kansas City
Twelfth Street and Vine’

That the journey represents a stage on a journey towards moral regeneration is indicated in three ways. First, the phrase ‘made it’, with its connotations of struggle, suggests he was making an effort. Secondly, since Kansas City was where the real Turner was born, arriving there again suggests rebirth.  And thirdly, there’s clearly no literal journey.  Not only is ‘nothing standing there’, but he arrives at an intersection – Twelfth Street and Vine – which in fact does not exist.

The journey is incomplete. While his effort is essential, he needs, and realises he needs, help. His moral darkness will not subside until the rising of the sun, or Son.

Charles Darwin too is on a journey, one towards ending religious bigotry (if we consider the legacy of the historical Darwin). Like Turner his journey is incomplete, interrupted by the guardians of the religious establishments – ‘the Englishman, the Italian and the Jew’ – who, despite their differences,  co-operate to bring about a common, destructive end.5


Part 3: Mental Outlook  

An appropriate mental attitude is seen as the key to moral regeneration. The word ‘mind’ occurs in the song three times. Big Joe Turner starts off looking:

‘From the dark room of his mind’.

The narrator expresses misdirected pride in his ability to:

‘… make a strong man lose his mind

and George Lewis:

‘… told the Englishman, the Italian and the Jew
”You can’t open your mind, boys
To every conceivable point of view”’

Whereas the people generally have lost their possessions, Turner can be seen as a strong man who has been made to ‘lose his mind’. The implication is that he needs to find it again, and that that can be brought about only by letting in the moral light represented by the sun.

For the ‘dark room’ of Turner’s mind to be open requires it, contrary to George Lewis’ patronisingly delivered advice, to be open:

‘… to every conceivable point of view’.

The recipients, ‘the Englishman, the Italian and the Jew’, need to be tolerant of each other’s (presumably religious) points of view. They also need to accommodate scientific advances which might threaten religion rather than opposing the scientific ‘point of view’. Instead  they combine to get:

‘… Charles Darwin trapped …’

It’s not just Big Joe Turner who has lost his mind as a result of the narrator’s actions. So has Bertha Mason. We’re told:

‘Bertha Mason shook it – broke it
Then she hung it on a wall’

Broke what? Hung what? It doesn’t matter. To break something and then display it is absurd. And so is to display it on ‘a wall’ – just any wall. The behaviour is mad. We don’t know if Bertha Mason is the recipient of the poems the narrator writes, but if through them the narrator can make a strong man lose his mind, then it’s likely his work will have a similarly negative effect on their female dedicatee.6


Part 4: Solution

Love

By the end of the song the narrator has developed. He’s making an effort to be loyal:

‘Keeping away from the women
I’m givin’ ‘em lots of room’,

and there’s a new moral commitment in his declaration:

‘I just can’t be happy, love
Unless you’re happy too’

When he’d previously addressed the woman as ‘love,’ it had seemed insincere. Now it seems to genuinely reflect his feelings.

References to types of love throughout the song help make clear what is wrong with society while at the same time showing the narrator to have a need for moral development.  The narrator himself is treated well by Fat Nancy. When he casually asks her for food, she says he can:

‘Take it off the shelf’

And prior to that, in verse three, he hopes for such treatment:

‘I hope you treat me kind’.

This, though, is hypocritical since the woman he’s addressing is one whose interest he does not have at heart.

The only sort of love he’s interested in at that point is sex, as is shown by the injunction to:

‘Jump into the wagon, love, throw your panties on the board’.

That his love is limited to sex is further indicated by his almost simultaneously using the word ‘love’ in connection with his car:

‘I got a craving love for blazing speed’

What he’s learnt by the end of the song is a selfless love. Rather than pursuing adulterous sex, he’s now keeping away from all but the one woman. And, what might amount to the same thing, rather than looking to be ‘treated kind’, he’s now prepared to make that one woman happy.


Self-reliance

The narrator’s personal moral growth goes hand-in-hand with his becoming more self-reliant. Originally what Bertha Mason said was true of him, if interpreted as a statement of fact:

‘”You’re dancin’ with whom they tell you to …”’

The implication is that, having no control over what he does, he can’t be self-reliant. Even the mad Bertha Mason actively ‘broke’ something and attempted to put right what she’d broken:

‘… she hung it on a wall’.

The narrator, by contrast, just sees things as ‘breaking up’. He accepts no responsibility. Rather than making amends, he  comes across as pathetic:

‘… don’t know what I’m going to do’.

He even relies on others’ help when they’re in no position to give it:

‘”Don’t reach out for me,” she said
“Can’t you see I’m drownin’ too?”’

However, the penultimate verse sees the beginnings of a change. Fat Nancy tells him he can achieve more:

‘”As great as you are a man7
You’ll never be greater than yourself”’

This can be taken as drawing his attention to either the extent or the limits of what he can achieve. He doesn’t have to be totally dependent on others. And he can be a provider of help for others.

Initially the narrator responds with a statement which associates him with the Judge’s:

 ‘I don’t care’

– in that case a callous disregard for whether someone dies or not. Consistent with his usual inaction, the narrator exhibits the same lack of responsibility:

‘I told her I didn’t really care’

The change in the narrator is prompted by example. As a provider of food Fat Nancy is self-reliant. Her behaviour towards the narrator becomes a stimulus for his eventually helping both himself and others. While acceding to his request for food, she doesn’t just hand it to him but expects him to play an active part:

‘”Take it off the shelf”’

Although slow to begin with, in the final verse we see the narrator respond by taking full control of his behaviour. Now he’s:

‘… ‘getting’ up in the morning’,

suggesting a new decisiveness, the ‘up’ contrasting with the hopelessness represented by the downward trajectory of the shacks and the coffins early in the song.  And however ‘I believe I’ll dust my broom’ is taken, it too suggests a commitment to responsible activity as opposed to reliance on others.8

But crucially, not only is he following Fat Nancy’s example by taking control, but he’s following her example in enabling others to help themselves. His decision to leave ‘the women’ alone is done to improve their lot as well as his own:

‘I’m givin’ ‘em lots of room’

Being given room is also like being shown the shelf with the food on. He’s put them in a position whereby they can improve themselves. That this is a positive move is further made apparent in the choice of language. We can’t help contrasting ‘lots of room’ with the oppressive ‘dark room’ which Joe Turner failed to escape. Without help from others, effort is unfruitful.


Conclusion

The song provides a picture of society, presenting it as selfish. The selfishness is associated with wealth, decadence, and corruption on the part of those in power and, as represented by the flood, is shown to be both destructive and all-invasive. Escape from society’s ills depends on a resolve to actively combat one’s own selfishness. The effect of such a resolve is two-fold in that it not only benefits the one who exercises it, but in so doing it provides the stimulus needed for others to help themselves.

Where individuals are willing to make the required effort, but aren’t helped by others, their metaphorical journey is pointless or incomplete. Thus Big Joe Turner arrives in Kansas City to find no improvement. And Darwin is stopped on the highway.

The narrator’s own progress from a seemingly benign complacency is slow. Initially he’s at a loss to know how he should act. Desperate to avoid ‘drowning’, he finds that the only person who might help him is equally in need of his help. Initially unable to help himself or others, it’s only when he receives help that he’s able to actively bring about his own moral regeneration, and in so doing to put others in a position to do the same.

 

 

Notes:

1. Dylan’s song owes its title and subject matter to High Water Everywhere which was recorded in 1929 by Charlie Patton. It’s about Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and mistreatment of African Americans. Many couldn’t leave due to being bound to the custody of landowners for whom they served as sharecroppers. Wording from Patton’s Shake it and Break It occurs in adapted form in verse two (see note 6).

2. One version, which has ‘warbles’ instead of the usual ‘sings’, and – like Dylan’s song refers to silver and gold is The Strollers’ (Dave and Toni Arthur):

Well the cuckoo is a pretty bird and she warbles as she flies.
And she never holler “cuckoo!” till the Fourth of July.

Well I’ve played cards in England and I’ve played cards in Spain,
And I’ll bet you five dollars that I’ll win you next game.

Jack of Diamonds, Jack of Diamonds, I know you of old;
You robbed my poor pockets of my silver and gold.

Well the cuckoo is a pretty bird and she warbles as she flies.
And she never holler “cuckoo” till the Fourth of July.

Other versions refer to the cuckoo’s association with infidelity.

3. The narrator is also, perhaps, a hypocrite in that Samson’s blindness is sometimes thought to have been sanctioned as a punishment for his visiting a prostitute – behaviour not dissimilar to the narrator’s. Either way, blindness seems to characterise the narrator’s moral outlook.

4. While the flood itself might be seen as representing immoral behaviour and, like its biblical predecessor, the human consequences of such behaviour, the cuckoo is not a counterpart of the dove in the biblical account. Unlike the dove, it does not represent moral renewal.

5. The narrator’s moral progress is reflected in the move from ‘nothing’ to ‘something’ to everything’. There’s ‘nothing standing’ where Turner arrives in Kansas, the narrator acquires ‘somethin’ to eat’ from Fat Nancy, and finally the narrator’s moral redemption is reflected in Clarkesdale where ‘everything is looking blue’ – ‘blue’ suggesting that for him now the sun is shining.

6. Charley Patton, to whom the Dylan song is dedicated, recorded Shake It and Break It in 1929. It begins ‘Just shake it, you can break it, you can hang it on the wall’. Shake, Rattle and Roll was recorded by Big Joe Turner 1954. The highly sexual lyrics suggest that the allusions in Dylan’s song (‘Bertha Mason shook it’ in verse 2 and ‘Thunder rolling’ in the final verse) help emphasise the role of sexual attitudes in causing misery.

7. Perhaps a contraction of ‘As great as you are, you are a man’.

8. Dust can be taken as symbolising death. Accordingly the narrator’s dusting can be seen as his own taking on a new life. I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom is a song recorded by Robert Johnson 1936. The phrase may have relevant sexual connotations.