I got to hear Bob Dylan sing High Water (for Charley Patton) on both nights I attended his New York shows. Center stage and nothing between Dylan and the audience but the thin microphone stand. High Water is a song that gets just plain bigger every time I hear it . It holds more and gives more. The verses begin with staccato brisk recitations of the words, and then open up and slow down. By the last line of each verse, and then the “high water everywhere” refrain, the phrasing takes us back to the big muddy, the high water is everywhere, and we’re pulled by the singer into the current no one can fight. In the music you can actually hear the vocal struggle to pull out of the current, and then the current pulling the singer back down, and of course us with him. Live, the song can be blistering and triumphant, or it can be steady and unyielding. It is generous and embracing–we’re all in the high water.
It’s a song made for Dylan’s voice today, picking out words quickly like dropping rough stones one by one, and then the growls that come up from beneath the ground beneath the stage beneath his feet. And today we pay special attention to verse #5. It begins like an old joke. An Englishman, Italian, and a Jew walk into a Bob Dylan song, and they’re reprimanded by George Lewis, a black American who was a New Orleans jazz trombonist , and whose career ran through Jim Crow, and just past the Civil Rights era. Or they’re reprimanded by George Lewes/Lewis, the Victorian writer who took up a sort of outlaw life as the adulterous consort of a woman also named George,who was a better writer than himself. Or George Lewis is neither of these, but the name does trail histories of custom and liberty and making music and writing stories. It’s a George Lewis who tells the Englishman, Italian, and Jew, each with his own very different story of man and God and law, “you can’t open your mind, boys, to every conceivable point of view.” Reality has too many heads, and the human mind can only stand so much. And teacherly, paternally, condescendingly, this Lewis calls them boys.
And if you don’t get it in the opening lines, Dylan pulls out the big gun, and Charles Darwin himself gets called to the stage. Where he’s cornered on highway 5, the interstate running along the far west coast, north to south from Washington through southern California. Where the American west basically stops, and traffic moves up and down between Canada and Mexico. Darwin’s trapped here, and the law, the Judge, tells its muscle, the High Sheriff, to hand him over, period. Dead or alive. This High Sheriff carries a lot of weight: he brings us back to the album’s musical journey, with Charley Patton’s song “High Sheriff Blues,” and High Sheriff being a post found both in the UK and the US, it links Darwin to his homeland and to the country where his ideas have been defendants in courthouses. Darwin is lethal or he’s worthless, his death no stain on the hands of the law. “Either one–I don’t care,” is a line that seems almost intrinsically unflubbable, Dylan always gets it across as a pitch black drawling sneer, always too cold and too believable to be just plain clever. And down in the flood goes all kinds of histories, all kinds of *progress*. What does it mean for me to struggle through this high water? I’m reaching for certainties and salvation too, aren’t I.
On the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species, listen to High Water (for Charley Patton), be grateful to Bob Dylan for giving us dark and fresh new ways of hearing the song live, and think about history and floods and progress.