Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Is This Something That Was On Dylan's Mind When He Wrote High Water (For Charley Patton)?

Photo by Chris Gallagher on Unsplash
As I've said many times, you never know when a Dylan reference will appear. Sometimes it's a song in a movie, a photo in a magazine, a commercial inserted into the Super Bowl and frequently, as in this case, a reference in a book.

A couple weeks ago I was reading Anna Merlan's book Republic of Lies, which takes a deep dive into the variety of ways conspiracy notions get generated. Chapter two explores how the notion came about that the flooding in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina was a result of the government blowing up the levees.

Merlan writes, "The idea (that the government would dynamite the levee) is rooted in two things: an infamous 1927 decision in New Orleans to dynamite the levees; and a long-standing, multi-pronged suspicion that the federal government has engaged in depopulation schemes aimed at black citizens." Even Spike Lee doesn't find the idea all that far-fetched that the government would try to push blacks out of New Orleans.

This feature of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 is something I've been unfamiliar with. On that occasion, the leaders of New Orleans, in an attempt to save the city took dynamite and blew up the levees upstream at Caernarvron, Louisiana. The result: more than half a million were left homeless. Many died.

Photo by the author.
Charley Patton wrote his song "High Water" as a protest. Blacks living on the Delta were restricted as to where they could live or move to. Relief efforts treated whites and blacks differently. The event, which has been cited in numerous blues songs, including "When the Levee Breaks" by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie (which Dylan re-invents on Modern Times), triggered one of the largest mass migrations in U.S. history.

According to a letter to President Calvin Coolidge, a complaint written by a black businessman, blacks were forced to keep working on the levee at gunpoint while whites and mules were given time to escape to safety.

What is not mentioned in this account of mass migration is how crowded the black parts of the Northern cities already were. This was pre-Civil Rights Act of 1964. Those who left the devastation in the Delta found themselves cramped into overcrowded Rust Belt ghettoes.

So the story of the flood is to some extent a story about racism. This is a factoid that I was unaware of, one that according to Merlan is fairly well-known among a segment of our society. I've not yet elsewhere read about this notion of that flood and racism, nor have I seen this connection made by any of the lyrics interpreters in Dylan circles. (Correct me, please, if I am wrong.)

Has Dylan, who famously does not interpret his lyrics for us, been attempting to subtly make this connection apparent by continuously favoring the song in his setlists? He's performed it over 700 times now since recorded in 2001 for Love and Theft.

Though most of us have little knowledge or recollection of these events, the 1927 flood "lives vividly in the collective memory of the region," write Merlan. When Hurricane Betsy struck in 1965, the levees were breached and some New Orleans residents were certain that city leaders had blown the levees to save the wealthier parts of town. There were people who claimed to hear explosions that sounded like dynamite, just as in the Katrina disaster.

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Photo by the author.
While listening to Disc Two of Travelin' Through this past week, one of two discs featuring Dylan and Johnny Cash recording songs together on Bootleg #15, the familiar Five Feet High & Rising played again, leading me to see if Johnny's song was about the same incident. It was not.

Cash, who himself was born into poverty in the Arkansas lowlands, was writing about the Mississippi River flood of 1937 that occurred when he was just shy of five. His first person account appeared on his third album as a Columbia recording artist, in 1959.

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Randy Newman, whose distinctive voice we're all familiar with from the numerous film scores he's produced, also wrote and recorded a song about the 1927 flood, simply titled, "Louisiana 1927." His is a straightforward account of the disaster after the river "rose all day and rose all night." 700,000 people were left homeless.

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Kees de Graaf, another lyric dissector, makes additional connections of note from this song, one being it's parallel to Hard Rain and the theme of "apocalyptic menace." "The flood," he writes, "overwhelms doomed people, and there is no help as the structure of society breaks down like in the days of Noah’s great flood."

Of course Apocalypse is nothing new in Dylan's oeuvre. (cf. "All Along the Watchtower.") At the same time that the Fifth Dimension was singing about the Age of Aquarius there were more books about the end of the world being produced than ever before. Against this backdrop an entire generation has been raised, now sinking into the twilight.

The song itself is a series of image fragments but when all is said and done, the conclusion is simple to understand:

It's bad out there
High water everywhere.

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Related Links
Tony Attwood breaks down High Water (For Charley Patton)
Lyrics to High Water 
Song Analysis by Kees de Graaf
When the Levee Breaks and Modern Times

New Year's Day Trivia: On this day in history, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

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