Trapped Out There On Highway 5

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.


6 thoughts on “Trapped Out There On Highway 5

  1. What are you trying to say please ? Can you state your point in a sentence or two in clear English? I’m sure you’re trying to say something, because you seem passionate, I just wish you would say it without all the florid language.

  2. I suppose I write the way that I enjoy writing, and I accept any criticism, and I thank you for taking the time to read and also to post a polite comment.

  3. Not sure what Ponderosa’s qualm is (lazy, slow witted?). I thought this was a great piece on the song.

  4. The George Lewis you’re referring to was actually a clarinetist. There is a trombonist George Lewis, who was born in Chicago in 1952 & is still alive & belongs to a different jazz tradition.

    What I’ve never been able to get a feel for is why (in the song) he dispenses this particular advice to these 3 guys. Yes, they do represent 3 different religious (and cultural) traditions, but don’t we assume they’re each set in their ways & not likely to try to go all ecumenical on us. (That’s always the basis of the jokes.) Why doesn’t George, confronting the 3 of them, say “I can’t open my mind to every conceivable point of view” (and, implicitly, make fair sense of all 3 of you).

    See what I mean? Any thoughts? Is he just trying to put them at ease, implying “Don’t worry about your differences (just drink up & enjoy each other’s company for what it’s worth).” Either that, or something equally oblique seems the operative logic here.

    I’m a bit sympathetic with ponderosa, but I would suggest that the “fault” is not with your post but with Dylan, whose words are speed-jumping his logic throughout the song. You can feel the sense it makes instantly, but it could take years for us to parse it.

  5. This is the George Lewis I’d heard of, whom I associated with the song: Trombonist. Could certainly be wrong.

    George Eliot’s lover, George Lewes (sometimes spelled Lewis) always comes to my mind also when I hear the song. I like all the associations with transgressing custom, living according to desire, convention be damned….these seem to tie into the song. The struggle between freeing oneself of the ties that bind, and having to go under the high water of the world you’ve found yourself in, because that is as valid and irresistible as autonomy. You dance with who I’ll tell you to, or you don’t dance at all. This isn’t just shackles, it’s part of life.
    I definitely see JH’s point regarding the Englishman, Italian, and Jew. I wonder if this George Lewis it talking to himself. He sees these three representatives of man/God/law and he simply has to say, can’t open your mind, boys. I know I should, but you know what, I can’t. To hell with perspectivism. I like yr hearing better, and it’s more Dylan-ish: you don’t have to understand each other to be each other’s companion. That is WAY better than my hearing.
    Dylan speed-jumps logic, and my verbiage is slow and bulky and awkward. I’m happy thinking and typing, and I’m always trying in my way to do justice to the speed-jumping. I’m doing all I can, doing it right here and now.

  6. I’d go for New Orleans George Lewis, myself: I think New Orleans is the capital of Bob Dylan’s America. Of course, like William Shakespeare, it could be that George Lewis is actually another man of the same name.
    We could also throw into this pot, however, which is already dripping with garlic and olive oil, the man called George Lewis, or George Louis, or Georg Ludwig, who later topped the charts under the name George I, King of Great Britain and Ireland. While George Lewis, favourite nephew of George Washington, played a leading role in defeating the troops of George Lewis’s great-grandson, George III.
    George Lewis’s advice seems not unsimilar to: Your mind is your temple, keep it beautiful and free. Don’t let an egg get laid in there by something you can’t see.

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