“High Water Rising (For Charley Patton)” (2001)

Call it “cultural plunder” (Lott) or “yoking” (Yaffe) “High Water” is an amalgam of allusions, references, borrowings, gleanings,  and sifting.  That said, the prophet in Dylan sure got it right that after 9/11 (Love and Theft released on 9/11) many people have lived feeling that their heads are just above water.  The song is packed with messages of how tough, rough, and bad it is “out there.”  The verse with a “head”/”lead”/”said” rhyme helps reinforce this sentiment:

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

There’s keeping just above the dangers and threats, almost drowning, not dark yet but getting there, and we’re in this together–this is all over the place, happening to me and you stuff that nightmares are made of in this verse.  Coffins droppin like balloons is quite an image.  There’s staying above but going over implied in these lines, too.  Things go over like lead balloons.  Greil Marcus notes that what drops harder than anything in this song is the word “care” and the way Dylan says it in the line, “Either one, I don’t care”/High water everywhere.”  Dylan not caring goes over like a lead balloon. The finger pointing songs we grew up on made him seem to care so much.  Now he “used to care but things have changed.”  Staying above and going over, heady advice for our time though, downright caring, when we look again and see that what we saw is no longer standing there.

Image result for the twin towers on 9/11

Dylan appears to care about this song having performed it 712 times over the last 17 years.  Here’s one of those times, Irvine, CA, August, 3, 2013:


“Handy “Dandy” (1990)

Christopher Ricks hands us over eight pages on “Handy Dandy” in his chapter from Dylan’s Vision of Sin that focuses on Envy. He gives attention to the song linking him and Michael Gray to how they both find the song terrific.  Ricks distinguishes himself from Gray in how he sees the song as scary, and he ties what he calls the “You’ll say / He’ll say routine” in at as part of the fright, “as if someone is being instructed in a code of behavior.”  This makes the “said”/”dead” rhyme ominous, threading the motif of threat through the song:


You say, “What are ya made of?”
He says, “Can you repeat what you said?”
You’ll say, “What are you afraid of?”
He’ll say, “Nothin’! Neither ’live nor dead.”

Yes, as Ricks notes, what’s neither live nor dead is money, HD is made of money, and probably drug money, i.e. the candy that he’s just like with sugar (on top? over the top?).

Ricks refers the game handy-dandy, defined the OED as “A children’s game in which a small object is shaken between the hands by one of the players, and, the hands being suddenly closed, the other player is required to guess in which hand the object remains.”  The expression has been used to mean “change of places, alternately, in rapid alternation.”   Sounds a little like Dylan himself.  Is Dylan the “hand-dandy” in the song?  Here are a couple of turn of the century dandies:

Image result for dandies

And here’s an audio of the only time Bob performed it live, June 27, 2008:



“George Jackson” (1971)

“Blackmen born in the U.S. and fortunate enough to live past the age of 18 are conditioned to accept the inevitability of prison. For most of us, it simply looms as the next phase in a sequence of humiliations.”  -George Jackson-
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In the last verse of “George Jackson,” Dylan rhymes “yard” with “guards,” the last words of lines 2 and 4:

Sometimes I think this whole world
Is one big prison yard
Some of us are prisoners
The rest of us are guards
Lord, Lord
They cut George Jackson down
Lord, Lord
They laid him in the ground

This is the rhyming pattern in the song; each 2nd and 4th lines end in a rhyme.  Otherwise, the rhyming is limited to the “down”/”ground” one that ends each verse:

I woke up this mornin’
There were tears in my bed
They killed a man I really loved
Shot him through the head
Lord, Lord
They cut George Jackson down
Lord, Lord
They laid him in the ground

Sent him off to prison
For a seventy-dollar robbery
Closed the door behind him
And they threw away the key
Lord, Lord
They cut George Jackson down
Lord, Lord
They laid him in the ground

He wouldn’t take shit from no one
He wouldn’t bow down or kneel
Authorities, they hated him
Because he was just too real
Lord, Lord
They cut George Jackson down
Lord, Lord
They laid him in the ground

Prison guards, they cursed him
As they watched him from above
But they were frightened of his power
They were scared of his love.
Lord, Lord,
So they cut George Jackson down.
Lord, Lord,
They laid him in the ground.

Sometimes I think this whole world
Is one big prison yard
Some of us are prisoners
The rest of us are guards
Lord, Lord
They cut George Jackson down
Lord, Lord
They laid him in the ground

In the “yard”/”guard” rhyme Dylan does one of his “either one or the other” a la “Well it may be the devil or it may be the Lord . . .” binary in “Gotta Serve Somebody.” This one has teeth though; indeed the world as “one big prison yard” and we as either prisoners or guards is convincing, as is the way Joan Baez sings the song:

Some background of Jackson taken from the Freedom Archives website:

“Black Panther leader George Jackson was born on September 23, 1941 in Chicago, Illinois. At age 18, he was sentenced to serve an indeterminate term in San Quentin State Prison for a $70 gas station robbery. On August 21, 1971, the FBI, the state of California and other law enforcement agencies killed Jackson with multiple bullets to his chest, but they failed to kill the revolutionary struggle of Black and poor prison inmates that he was instrumental in organizing throughout this country.

Jackson educated himself behind prison bars to the point where his clear vision of historical and contemporary reality and his ability to communicate his perspective had frightened the U.S. power structure into physically liquidating him. Jackson’s survival for so many years in vicious jails, his self-education, and his publication of Soledad Brother were tremendous personal achievements.

His assassination sparked the September 13, 1971 rebellion at Attica State Prison in New York, prompting the bloodiest suppression of an inmate uprising in U.S. history.”

“Forever Young” (1974)

Dylan wrote “Forever Young” in Tucson, AR around the time he was working with Sam Peckinpah on Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.  He hoped to avoid sentimentality in the song, admitting he was, “thinking of one of [his] boys (Jakob?) and not wanting to be too sentimental.  Christopher Ricks feels Dylan gets his wish since the song can’t avoid “sensing something dark that is in the air.”  In the first verse, one such line with that sensing includes the word “stars”:
May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young
Ricks argues that the William Blake poem “For Children” (which may or may not have been familiar to Dylan) contains the “dark sensing” that Dylan’s song alludes to.  In the Blake poem, “A tiny man mounts a ladder propped against a quarter moon,” and in the background are seven stars, the caption under the illustration at this moment in the poem reads, “I want, I want.”
Better to build ladders directly to the stars, yes?  And do it with some humility–Dylan’s song after all is about granting, not wanting (no “I want you” or any one or thing for that matter in this song).  It’s about wishes, may you, may you, may you over and over again, and you will never want, in the sense of lack, for nothing.
Here’s the immortal version of “Forever Young” from The Last Waltz:

“Day Of The Locusts” (1969)

[This blog posting is an excerpt from an article I wrote for Professing Dylan (2016), a book about teaching Dylan, published by Philips Memphis Publishing and edited by Frances Hunter (1939-2016) of Arkansas State University with a forward written by Michael Gray.]

The song begins with the sound of locusts, though more like the melodic leg-rubbing sound of crickets.  The chorus refers to how they, the locusts, were singing to Dylan, but the listener gets to hear them, too, so we are in a sense privy to this invitation or entrance in to such singing. The tears and perspiration on the benches acknowledge the celebratory transformation that graduates anticipate, but Dylan is distanced from that–it is the locusts he hears, though he sees the tears and perspiration.

The second verse refers to darkness and the smell of a tomb.  But there is a sudden light–the hope perhaps shown to him from nature,

I glanced into the chamber where the judges were talking
Darkness was everywhere, it smelled like a tomb
I was ready to leave, I was already walkin’
But the next time I looked there was light in the room

and perhaps not limited to the singing of the locusts but to the birds “flying from tree to tree” in the first verse.

The third verse is probably a direct reference to Crosby’s anger–an emotion felt by Dylan and projected out from his friend, who upon departure called the Princeton administration a “[b]unch of dickheads on auto-stroke” (qtd. in Dylan, Chronicles).  But Dylan shuns this emotion. It is not the one he wants to pursue in this song.  Instead he pursues joy.

In the fourth verse, he picks up his sweetheart and heads out to nature, blissfully removed to a place where he could become himself again and not the representation or image-extended identity of someone else.

I put down my robe, picked up my diploma
Took hold of my sweetheart and away we did drive
Straight for the hills, the black hills of Dakota
Sure was glad to get out of there alive
And the locusts sang, well, it give me a chill
Yeah, the locusts sang such a sweet melody
And the locusts sang with a high whinin’ trill
Yeah, the locusts sang and they was singing for me
Singing for me, well, singing for me

The song uses alternating rhymes throughout with “distance” appearing as an echo rhyme twice.  Keeping one’s distance from harmful settings and being distant from one’s self when one’s identify is compromised are messages echoing in the song.  What’s off in the distance, too, may just be where one needs to be so that what becomes distant  becomes relevant to a quote from another Dylan song,

What looks large from a distance
Close up ain’t never that big

(“Tight Connection To My Heart”)

The studio version:


“To Ramona” (1964)

Michael Gray calls “To Ramona” one of two songs off Another Side of Bob Dylan that comes “across as early flashes of the creative explosion” soon to be.  It’s a five verse song with a significant thematic rhyme “fed”/”head” beginning the third, middle verse:
I can see that your head
Has been twisted and fed
By worthless foam from the mouth
I can tell you are torn
Between stayin’ and returnin’
On back to the South
You’ve been fooled into thinking
That the finishin’ end is at hand
Yet there’s no one to beat you
No one t’ defeat you
’Cept the thoughts of yourself feeling bad

The rhyme feeds images that last, a head twisted and foam from the mouth. The foam comes from others–worthless fodder, scraps of crap Dylan would get used to from the media, would come to know all to well what it was, and even more so how do deal with it–only self-pity could be the real crippling damaging force.
“head“/”fed” is the only rhyming couplet in that verse.  But what I really like is how the ending -d sound is echoed later in it at other line ending words, “hand” and “bad.”  “head” which begins the verse almost helps “hand” and “bad” become a rhyme, especially when Dylan sings it compressing just the right words and expanding just the right sounds to do it, with that “early flash” of “creative explosion” as can be heard in this live performance at Newcastle, England on May 6, 1965:

“Temporary Like Achilles” (1966)

You love someone but he/she sends you no regards, sends someone out to have you barred  . . . now that’s pretty hard to deal with. In Temporary Like Achilles,” things get harder and harder for the would be lover, while the words that rhyme with the word “hard” keep piling up.  “heart” and “hard” have a kind of assonance, and the heart being referred to is questioned as being made of stone, solid rock even.  The “guard” rhyme with “hard” helps phrase the deepest question, puts it back on the object of the devotion:
Just what do you think you have to guard?
You know I want your lovin’
Honey, but you’re so hard
If nothing else gets her (assuming gender)  to let down her guard this might, but if the guard is actually someone like Achilles, well this is going to get even harder:
Achilles is in your alleyway
He don’t want me here, he does brag
He’s pointing to the sky
And he’s hungry, like a man in drag
How come you get someone like him to be your guard?
You know I want your lovin’
Honey, but you’re so hard
Now Achilles is rock solid hard, all brawn, but he once did dress in drag, ordered to by his mother to make him avoid going to war. But he was hungry for battle, his nature was to be a warrior. Capture Achilles in that moment of his myth and make him your guard? Well that’s bound to be temporary.  Maybe there’s hope in breaking down or losing that guard altogether after all.
Back to the myth: here is a painting from Greek Mythology Link of the moment when Odysseus discovers Achilles’ disguise:

“Standing In The Doorway” (1997)

Time Out of Mind has that Keatsian quality of how fleeting all of life is–“a song cycle,” Daniel Mark Epstein says, “about aging, love, and loss, where the lyrics of one ballad of angst bleed into the lyrics of the next.” Perhaps someone who can see sadness in laughter has a strenuous enough tongue to “burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine” or even turn stars cherry red.

On Time Out of Mind‘s “Standing in the Doorway,” “stars” is not a rhyming word, but they are colored by the speaker’s state of mind:

The light in this place is so bad
Making me sick in the head
All the laughter is just making me sad
The stars have turned cherry red

Bad light, feeling sick, and laughter that makes you sad all can add up to make you see the stars with cherry red glasses.  Cherry?  Well maybe the word is needed to keep the 7 syllable second line in each of these two rhyming couplets alive.  The speaker is sick, melancholy, yes?  But not enough to keep those cherry red producing eyes away from lines that rhyme and balance.

There’s also a lot of “he said” and “she did” in “Standing in the Doorway.”  She (is it a she, is the speaker a he?) done left him in the doorway crying, but when it comes down to it (literally down the end of the song), the rhyme with “said” says it all:


I see nothing to be gained by any explanation
There are no words that need to be said
You left me standing in the doorway crying
Blues wrapped around my head

Yes, nothing to say, just tears and blues.  And an excellent blues tune it is ending with nothing to say, but plenty to sing, not to say, but a need to sing the blues.

Michael Gray calls “Standing In The Doorway” one of four major songs on Time Out Of Mind.  David Yaffe puts it on his top 70 list in Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown.  If you’ve ever been left alone, abandoned, tossed aside, rejected, well, this song resonates, finds its way into your heart, your broken one.

Dylan also uses “head” twice in the song, once in the second verse rhyming with “bad” and “sad”:


The light in this place is so bad
Making me sick in the head
All the laughter is just making me sad
The stars have turned cherry red
I’m strumming on my gay guitar
Smoking a cheap cigar
The ghost of our old love has not gone away
Don’t look like it will anytime soon
You left me standing in the doorway crying
Under the midnight moon

This is a wrenched rhyme, the way Dylan delivers the “ea” sound forces it to rhyme with “bad”/”sad.”  The whole song is wrenching, the sadness is especially–captured so well with the tone of his voice, the highlight being the way he stretches out the word “head,” the last word on the song:

There are no words that need to be said
You left me standing in the doorway crying
Blues wrapped around my head

The “said”/”head” rhyme ends the song.  But it’s not the sound of that rhyme that lingers; it’s the way he stretches out the words that end the last two lines, ” crying” and “head.”  The singer is not the only one the blues wrap around by the end of the song, the listener is, too.  This is a blues song, and the lingering instrumental after the word “head” leaves the you with nothing to say and maybe even tearing up if you let the song have its desired effect on you.  The tone of voice and the atmosphere created by it may  be unmatched in any other Dylan song.

Here’s the version from Masked and Anonymous:


“Positively 4th Street” (1965)

“Positively 4th Street” is a searing indictment against someone. Who?  We really don’t know, but who cares.  The insults are so good, so harsh, they amuse.  Ricks calls it “a masterpiece of regulated hatred.”  What can get lost in the midst of all the great putdowns is some of Dylan’s best rhymes:  “grinning”/winning,” “my back”/”contact,” “surprised”/paralyzed,” “rob them”/”problem.”

“Shoes” appear in the last two stanzas, with the power to rhyme as far as repetition of a word allows.  But “shoes”  gets Dylan to stand something on its head with the request to have someone stand inside his shoes and that is the cliche of “standing inside one’s shoes.”  Ricks observes that normally such a request  “is a movement inviting sympathy.”  Come see how I feel and you’ll understand me better.  But not with this shoe flip-flop.   Instead the “stand inside my shoes” is a way to turn back attention to the target of Dylan’s anger–you’ll understand not me , but what “a drag it is to see you.”  Ha! Yes, whoever you are, just when you thought you’ve lost everything in this song you find out you can lose a little more. And “shoes” helps Dylan pull this off:

I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
And just for that one moment
I could be you

Yes, I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
You’d know what a drag it is
To see you

Here’s a performance that a twitter friend of mine, Mark H. (@ffsake) said was  fascinating to watch  because Dylan seems to be “living these words as he sings.”

“From A Buick 6” (1965)

Bob was 24 when “From a Buick 6” was released in on Highway 61 Revisited.  It’s the fourth cut on a brilliant, landmark album that set him free from the expectations the folk community placed on him and defined the mark he would make on the sixties and his generation.  How fitting that the album appeared right smack dab in the middle of the 1960’s.  Arguably, it is the counter-culture epicenter with a distinct sound never achieved before and never to be again.

Robert Shelton notes that the lyrics in “From a Buick 6″ are “traditional couplets.”  And almost from the start Dylan gets the lead out to get the “e” sound charging up and down the highway of the song.  “bed” starts it at the end of verse 1, but the “dead”/”head“/”said”/”bed” rhymes in the last verse drive it home:

Well, you know I need a steam shovel mama to keep away the dead
I need a dump truck mama to unload my head
She brings me everything and more, and just like I said
Well, if I go down dyin’, you know she bound to put a blanket on my bed.

Here’s what a Buick looked like in 1965, the year Highway 61 came out, the album Michael Gray called the “carving out of a new emotional correspondence with a new chaos-reality”:

Imagine driving in this car back then with this song blasting a whole into infinity: