"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.

3 thoughts on “"If it’s a whirling beat, she’ll dance to it"

  1. Goddam, Aunt B! I’ve spent 25 years writing about music, and I’ve never written anything as eloquent and perfect as this.

    I want a book of your favorite songs, with essays about each of them.

  2. Steve, you’re making me blush. What an enormous compliment! I don’t even know how to respond, except to say “thanks.”

Comments are closed.