"If it’s a whirling beat, she’ll dance to it"

She picked up the drum to play
and tore it to pieces,
She danced under the Odan tree
and tore that to pieces.

I’ve been thinking all day of Bob Dylan’s song “High Water (for Charley Patton).” I don’t think it’s a song you can so much write about as map. You’d have to put the lyrics down on a big sheet of paper and with colored pens and lines for the direct borrowings, dashes for the associations, and dots for the things that just remind you of something else, draw out the universe in which that song both functions as the center–because it brings all those things together–and the outside edge–since it seems constantly to beckon you to look past it into a rich dark water of American history.

There are the bluesmen–Charley Patton and Joe Turner by name, Robert Johnson by lyrical borrowing. With the water rising, you think back to Memphis Minnie’s “When the Levee Breaks” and Bessie Smith’s “Backwater Blues.” There’s poor Bertha Mason–the madwoman in the attic who inspired Gilbert and Gubar and, as Rhys reminds us, traveled over the wide Sargasso sea so that two Brits could fall in love.

There’s cheating (Bertha’s plight and the arrival of the cuckoo) and religion and nursery rhymes. The song is less a narrative, less a song, than a way to listen to American history, knowing and dreading something dangerous coming up from the South (first Vicksburg, then Clarksdale) flooding the landscape and drowning us all.

There’s the banjo, that African instrument now so intimately linked with incestuous, violent rednecks (Deliverance). And the drums, the incessant drumming*, that calls to mind the drums of the voodoo rituals of New Orleans.

What woman could be so in love with the drums? So angry at dear Bob that she’d flood all of Mississippi? Whose coffins? Who would throw her panties overboard? Who would have compassion for poor Bertha? Who knows the usefulness of converting to Christianity?

Ah, Bob and his inadvertent love song to Oya, the hurricane herself.

We’re hunkering down in Nashville for our dance with Oya, who has not quite spent herself, if the email I got at work is to be believed–“The Nashville area may be subject to severe weather over the next 36 hours as Hurricane Katrina makes its way inland.”

In Africa, this is a song they sing her:

Insatiable vagina
Wizard’s medicine
Child who carries the corpse
fighting Oya will come into her own
fighting Oya will come into her own.

Sunrise hits the sky, pa pa
Broom that handles reluctantly
May she sweep in money!

Frowning canopy of huge trees
beholds the strong wind
Purifying stream of air
fought the lagoon
beat upon the mountain

Honest person who inhabits the sky
Honest person of the sky
cleaned out the swamp
leaped over the mountain
stripped off somebody’s head.

Oya, don’t take offense.
Eeepa! Oya, please go

Please go easy.


*This is from this site, which is the most awesome thing I’ve found on the internet since Rex L. Camino showed me free blues.

Context for the Rest of You

When I lived in the Midwest, I really had no good idea of how large hurricanes were. So, for those of you trying to understand the monstrousness of Katrina, here’s some observations.

Nashville is about eight hours from the Gulf. Lots of people from this area go down there on vacation, hence its nickname, The Redneck Riviera. We’re also about ten hours by car from New Orleans.

If you look at a weather map, you’ll see that the outer clouds associated with Katrina have already reached us and the eye is not yet on land. It will be a tropical storm by the time it reaches us on Tuesday, but still, here we are, eight hours inland and we’re being warned about sustained winds of 30-49 miles an hour with gusts up to 64.

Most of our weather comes in from the west or the southwest, so it’s always weird when Mrs. Wigglebottom and I are out walking to watch the clouds roll in from the southeast, as they’re doing today. It’s just a visual warning that things in the atmosphere are not normal.

And, of course, things continue to go from bad to worse all along the gulf coast, from New Orleans east and it’s going to be very bad for folks down there for a long time.

I wish I had something witty to say about the whole situation, but there’s really nothing to be said about it at all, except that it doesn’t seem like there’s any way this isn’t going to be an unimaginable nightmare and I’m glued to the coverage, like a gaper at a car wreck.