High Water (For Charley Patton)

The illustrator R. Crumb is known for his love of the music of the 1920s and 1930s. In the early 1980s, he began illustrating a series of trading cards for his musical heroes of that time period. The series was eventually released in book form in 2006’s R. Crumb’s Heroes of Blues, Jazz & Country. Instead of baseball cards of Mike Schmidt and Dale Murphy, one could collect cards for Charlie Poole with the North Carolina Ramblers, Fats Waller, Peetie Wheatstraw, and more. Each card had Crumb’s beautiful drawing of the musician based on whatever surviving images remain, and, on the back, instead of a compilation of statistical accomplishments at the plate, there was a short biographical summary of each hero. The entry for Charley Patton, along with the gorgeous drawing, provides the best overview of Patton’s musical career:

“One of the most influential Mississippi blues musicians, Charley Patton was born in 1887 and raised in the Delta town of Dockery. By 1919 he was already an established performer, known for such songs as ‘Pony Blues.’ A prolific artist, he recorded more titles (forty-two) within a single year than any blues artist of the decade. After his debut in 1929, his blend of comedic effects and hard blues gave him a unique musical identity.”

While Columbia Records dubbed Robert Johnson the “king of the Delta Blues singers,” he would have never received that distinction without Charley Patton creating the model. Whereas Johnson was all but obscure during his lifetime, Patton was a star, not only in the Mississippi Delta, but nationwide thanks to successful record sales. Johnson and others formed their own musical identities in response to what Patton established. As the Yazoo Records compilation said, Patton was truly the “founder of the Delta blues,” establishing the sound, personality, and persona of a Delta blues singer and songwriter.

In 1929, Patton released “High Water Everywhere, Part 1” as the A-side of a single and “High Water Everywhere, Part 2” on the flip side.

It was his musical response to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which, according to Wikipedia, was “the largest flood in American history, which affected much of the Mississippi River Valley, devastating large parts of Louisiana and the Mississippi Delta.”

Both part 1 and part 2 of “High Water Everywhere” are perfect examples of Patton’s body of work. Part 1 is a driving blues, with Patton’s guitar pounding out a forceful sound, whereas part 2 is much more contemplative and even mournful. Patton’s vocals are always a raspy howl. On these two cuts, the words of the song are nearly unrecognizable with only a few that stand out. The sound of his vocals convey the message of the devastation wrought by the flood. Fortunately, blues lovers have transcribed the lyrics of “High Water Everywhere” in full, and the havoc of the flood is in the words:

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

The great flood was a turning point for many Black Americans in the Delta region, forcing large numbers to abandon the South and move as part of the Great Migration. Patton’s lyrics symbolize the rush to leave:

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

To learn more about Charley Patton’s music and life, check out the complete box set Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton put out in 2001 by Revenant Records as well as the book Deep Blues by Robert Palmer.

At a press conference in Italy in July 2001, Bob Dylan said,

“If I made records for my own pleasure, I would only record Charley Patton songs.”

At the moment in time when he made that statement, Dylan had already recorded the album “Love and Theft, which featured the song “High Water (For Charley Patton).”

Dylan dedicates the song to Patton and reimagines Patton’s musical approach, moving from a blues structure to more of a banjo-led country romp. It’s rare to have a banjo as the featured instrument in a Bob Dylan song, making “High Water (For Charley Patton)” sound similar to Led Zeppelin’s “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” as another band that you don’t expect a banjo to enter the room. No one expects the Banjo Spanish Inquisition!

While the location is the same in both songs with both Dylan and Patton shouting out Vicksburg and Clarksdale, the re-imagining of Patton’s song by Dylan doesn’t stop at the musical sound, but also the lyrical content. Patton devastation of the 1927 flood is doom-laden. He knows that “It’s time to move now and start life over again…Well, I’m goin’ over the hill where, water, oh don’t ever flow.” Dylan also knows that everything is coming apart – “things are breakin’ up out there” – but he approaches his own song with a lightheartedness. If it’s the end of the world, it’s time to embrace the chaos and really let loose:

I got a cravin’ love for blazing speed
Got a hopped up Mustang Ford
Jump into the wagon, love, throw your panties overboard

The narrator is picking up girls during a devastating flood!

I can write you poems, 
Make a strong man lose his mind
I’m no pig without a wig
I hope you treat me kind

The bravado here is intentional, entering into the long lineage of self aggrandizement in music from blues to rock ‘n roll to hip-hop. In a later verse, the narrator has an exchange with a certain Fat Nancy, who, when asked for something to eat, replies, “Take it off the shelf—As great as you are, man. / You’ll never be greater than yourself.”

Even though the narrator tells her that he doesn’t really care, Fat Nancy’s words have an impact. In the subsequent verse, the narrator pulls back from his preening to the ladies saying that he’s “Keeping away from the women / I’m givin’ ’em lots of room.” The words of Fat Nancy as well as the gradual breaking apart of his known world has taught him the most important lesson in love: “I just can’t be happy, love / Unless you’re happy too.”|

Dylan has long inhabited his songs with specific characters. In addition to the aforementioned Fat Nancy, “High Water (For Charley Patton)” names an impressive seven different characters, including Big Joe Turner, Bertha Mason, George Lewis, Charles Darwin, the Judge, and the High Sheriff. (Wikipedia links are included for the background of the real characters.) A number of these characters are featured in the fifth verse of the song, a verse which undercuts the initial playfulness of Dylan’s approach to show how the rising water, or the end of the world, demonstrates humanity’s inability to come together in the face of adversity.

What starts off as the set-up to a joke – “George Lewis told the Englishman, the Italian and the Jew” – shifts quickly into an unfortunate truism: “‘Don’t open up your mind, boys / To every conceivable point of view.’” The narrator says in the next line that “They got Charles Darwin trapped out there on Highway Five.” It’s unclear if Charles Darwin’s captors are the three people from the joke set-up who have taken George Lewis’s words to an unfortunate end, attempting to stop the teaching of evolution. The next lines are chilling: “Judge says to the High Sheriff, / ‘I want him dead or alive / Either one, I don’t care.’” For whom is the Judge’s shocking edict directed? Is it Charles Darwin for his theory of evolution, or George Lewis for what he tells the Englishman, the Italian and the Jew? If it is indeed Charles Darwin, Dylan is depicting the squabbling of society, the unnecessary infighting when in the face of an extreme emergency. Dylan is saying that the high water is here now. We need to be working together. Why are we trying to find someone to blame instead?

The true eeriness of “High Water (For Charley Patton)” is the real life parallels. Though the song was written beforehand, it was released with the rest of “Love and Theft” on September 11, 2001. The words “Nothing standing there” landed hard on that day. Though it’s a cliché, the phrase “wanted dead or alive” was repeated not long after the song’s release in reference to Osama Bin Laden. Five years after the release of the song, the actions of “High Water (For Charley Patton)” played out in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina with the ineffectiveness of the local, state, and federal governments resulting in the unnecessary loss of countless lives. In a dark bit of commentary noting the connections between this song and the events on 9/11, one reviewer* said about Dylan that when you’ve been singing about the  apocalypse your whole career, eventually you are going to be right. With “High Water (For Charley Patton),” Dylan was certainly right.


* I have not been able to track down a source for that comment. I know this statement is not unique to me. If anyone knows who made this statement, please comment or email me, and I will update the source.

Image: National Archives and Records Administration, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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