Song of the Day #3,976: ‘High Water (for Charley Patton)’ – Bob Dylan

I toyed with some other titles, but I was never in any real danger of not listing Bob Dylan’s Love and Theft as my #1 album of 2001.

This was the Bard’s 29th studio album, in his fifth decade of recording, and it’s as vital and playful as anything he put out in the 60s. He released his meditation on death and aging, Time Out of Mind, a couple of years earlier, and people might have easily mistaken it for a swan song. Instead, Love and Theft suggested it was a rebirth.

Dylan’s late-career snarl has never been put to better use than on this collection of sly, winking folk, blues and rock tracks. The album offers a tour through an American South populated by hustlers, outlaws and hardened survivors. It’s a traveling circus presided over by an old man with a young man’s glint in his eye.

I have long trumpeted the six albums I consider Dylan’s finest. They include his first collection of original material (The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan), the Holy Trinity of 1965-66 (Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde) and Blood on the Tracks, his most devastating and personal album.

The capstone of that group is Love and Theft, an album that simultaneously brought a culminating perspective to his whole career and suggested he was only getting started.

High water risin’—risin’ night and day
All the gold and silver are bein’ stolen away
Big Joe Turner lookin’ east and west
From the dark room of his mind
He made it to Kansas City
Twelfth Street and Vine
Nothin’ standing there
High water everywhere

High water risin’, the shacks are slidin’ down
Folks lose their possessions—folks are leaving town
Bertha Mason shook it—broke it
Then she hung it on a wall
Says, “You’re dancin’ with whom they tell you to
Or you don’t dance at all”
It’s tough out there
High water everywhere

I got a cravin’ love for blazing speed
Got a hopped-up Mustang Ford
Jump into the wagon, love, throw your panties on the board
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
Things are breakin’ up out there
High water everywhere

High water risin’, six inches ’bove my head
Coffins droppin’ in the street
Like balloons made out of lead
Water pourin’ into Vicksburg, don’t know what I’m goin’ to do
“Don’t reach out for me,” she said
“Can’t you see I’m drownin’ too?
It’s rough out there
High water everywhere

Well, George Lewis told the Englishman, the Italian and the Jew
“You can’t open your mind, boys
To every conceivable point of view”
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”
High water everywhere

The Cuckoo is a pretty bird, she warbles as she flies
I’m preachin’ the Word of God
I’m puttin’ out your eyes
I asked Fat Nancy for somethin’ to eat, she said, “Take it off the shelf—
As great as you are a man
You’ll never be greater than yourself”
I told her I didn’t really care
High water everywhere

I’m gettin’ up in the morning—I believe I’ll dust my broom
Keeping away from the women
I’m givin’ ’em lots of room
Thunder rolling over Clarkesdale, everything is looking blue
I just can’t be happy, love
Unless you’re happy too
It’s bad out there
High water everywhere

5 thoughts on “Song of the Day #3,976: ‘High Water (for Charley Patton)’ – Bob Dylan

  1. Dana Gallup says:

    This is good stuff, but not sure this is Dylan just getting started, especially when the years since have included multiple albums of standards and Christmas songs nobody but the most die hard Dylan fans want to hear. 😀

    • Clay says:

      Well, I did say suggested! Plus, Modern Times, Together Through Life and Tempest are all very good post-2001 albums of original material.

  2. Peg says:

    Love your description of Dylan “an old man with a young man’s glint in his eye” ❤️❤️

  3. Simon Clayton says:

    Do so enjoy your blog. mot just because I am a fan of BD and Elvis Costello ( and Elvis Presley ) but the shear variety of stuff you put up there. I am in the UK and in 2000 met a beautiful woman from Connecticut who was a BD fan, I remember the release of the Love and Theft album, and her not buying it on the day of release because of the attacks on NYC. A few days later we discussed it and how a friend of hers picked up on the “booty call” line in a track.

    • Clay says:

      Thanks, glad you enjoy the blog! I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that I did buy Love & Theft on the day of release despite the horrible events of that day.

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