Saturday, August 17, 2013

Bob Dylan has Got Charles Darwin Trapped Out there on Highway 5

In Bob Dylan’s High Water (For Charley Patton) which was released on "Love And Theft" on Oct 19, 2001 there is a remarkable lyric that few have really taken notice of.   Let me quote here in context, to get it out in front of us:

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

George Lewis and Charles Darwin are some old bluesmen from the south right?  Friends of Blind Lemon Jefferson or something like that right?   No, I don’t think that is the reference.   He can’t be talking about Charles Darwin the English Naturalist, can he?  I mean this seems to be sort of a negative reference.   There was a time when Bob could warn about “Karl Marx having you by the throat and Henry Kissinger having you tied up into knots.”  But those days are long past for Bob, right?   Having Charles Darwin trapped out there on the highway and "wanted dead or alive?”   That is how we might talk about Billy the Kid or his outlaw sidekick Alias, but certainly not the distinguished English naturalist.
Dylan is not challenging the established orthodoxy of the university and the scientific culture of the Western World is he?  I mean if there is one thing that can’t be challenged in polite society in the twenty first century it has to be Charles Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection.  Hopefully Dylan isn’t still so “born again” that he is questioning this, the unquestionable verity?  I mean Neo-Darwinian evolution is accepted at every level, from the grade school, to the high school, in the university, graduates schools, to institutions of research, to the Smithsonian.  Come on Doug, you are not about to suggest that Dylan would be willing to question this overwhelming consensus are you?  To question this is tantamount to questioning the cultures’ overriding understanding of reality, he couldn’t, he wouldn’t go there, would he?  That would make him a rebel, and Bob Dylan is such a nice man, only occasionally “Preachin’ the Word of God, Putting out your eyes.”

Dylan understands the larger implications of this scientific theory, the larger worldview implications that arise from it.  Every worldview must answer the question, What is the thing or the process from which everything else comes?  A materialist or naturalistic worldview answers that question with reference to matter and energy and strictly material processes.   So Darwin’s theory provides a critical plank in this larger materialistic narrative or theory of being.   Is Dylan, with just a couple of words in a song, trying to undermine the very foundation of this very comprehensive and strictly materialistic view of reality?  In a word  …. Yes.   He claims this theory has a limited future:
Oh it’s rush hour now
On the wheel and the plow
And the sun is going down
Upon the sacred cow

Dylan has been critical before of those who would come to a place in their lives where “all they believe is their eyes, and their eyes just tell them lies.”  There is so much more going on in the world than simply what can be seen with our eyes.   We can’t even see the wind, only its effects, but we "don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows."

The artist has been concerned with this issue for a long time.  Forty three years ago on the New Morning Album from 1970 there was the interesting song called Three Angels.  The artist is sitting on a park bench observing things near 10th Avenue,  presumably Manhattan, and he is noticing everybody failing to ask basic questions….
One U-Haul trailer, a truck with no wheels
The Tenth Avenue bus going west
The dogs and pigeons fly up and they flutter around
A man with a badge skips by
Three fellas crawlin’ on their way back to work
Nobody stops to ask why…

And as a result, they are missing out on something real going on in the unseen world, the world beyond

The angels play on their horns all day
The whole earth in progression seems to pass by
But does anyone hear the music they play
Does anyone even try?
These are great questions by a sensitive seeker of truth, “In this concrete world full of souls” who can hear the music played by the three angels that is being drowned out by the whole earth passing by in progression, totally oblivious to what is really going on.

There is a bio-ethicist at Princeton, Peter Singer who is an advocate of the radical animal rights agenda and the denial of any qualitative difference between animals and man.  He says that we are just catching up with Darwin and anyone who puts any kind of distinction between “us and them” is not following the theory consistently.  It follows from that to assert anything like human dignity simply has no ground on which to stand.  To stand up for human dignity is just a form of “specism” Peter Singer says.   And this naturalistic way of thinking has a way of bleeding into our understanding of the other disciplines, sociology, political science, jurisprudence.
But Dylan reminds us that this way of thinking is headed in a bad direction in the conclusion to his song Ring them Bells,

Oh the lines are long
And the fighting is strong
And they’re breaking down the distance
Between right and wrong

There is only a little distance between right and wrong when there is no distinction between man and the animals.  Tattooed my babies with a poison pen” i.e. murdering them, can be made to seem justified if the world is over populated and the gravest danger facing mankind is made out to be something as banal and commonplace as “climate change.”
 But Bob councils his friends,

"You can't open your mind, boys…….To every conceivable point of view."
You have to find some place to stand.   Maybe it should be on the “Solid Rock, made…. before… the creation of the World.”  Which is something to which "he won't let go, and he can't let go."


For a good live performance of this song, with some great harmonica work from July 27, 2011 visit:


  1. I think you´re right about this. Thanks!!

  2. I like your comments,
    But if you analyze the line you started with
    "they" the judge and high sheriff.

    It seems that Darwin has committed some crime for which they want him dead or alive, either one the judges says, he don't care. The life of this criminal is not important only that he should be stopped and made to pay.

    I think on the contrary (A place Dylan seems comfortable) he's sympathetic to Darwin, someone who dared to look at the truth with his own mind and not be confined by what the rest of society believes.
    The other lyrics you chose do remind us that Dylan finds a spiritual connection in the world to a life after this one, an unmaterialistic realm based in the heart and soul.

    "...Beyond here lies nothin', cept the mountains of the past"

    how bout this one

    "I finally kissed goodbye that howlin beast that seperated you from me....."

    The sacred cow reference puts me in mind of Buddhist sutras that speak of that place he's always eluding to between death and nirvana where we all have to make a choice to exist is the physical world or to move on to a place of simple truth, the kingdom of love, the state of mind and peace that comes from learning to love without the conditions of our physical world.

    Anyway, he's still got God on his side....

  3. "Don't put my faith in nobody, not even a scientist"

  4. Gotta totally disagree w/ your interpretation. When has Dylan ever used the character of a judge as a morally sound proponent of justice? He's always been on the side of the outlaw. Like it or not: Darwin's still an outlaw in most humanities depts.


  5. Despite this essay's focus on words Bob Dylan has George Lewes speak, it never identifies Lewes or explains why he would warn against credulity. Instead of confronting the actual lyrics of High Water, you prooftext from a bunch of unrelated songs, pausing momentarily to attack a straw man of Peter Singer.

    Perhaps the songs title and its dedication to the bluesman are too straightforward to fit into the code you've uncovered, but your essay never mentions the song's many references to blues history or American history.

    The Mississippi flood of 1927 is the worst flood in US history. It reached into 10 states, covering some areas in up to 30 feet of water. It is the subject of Patton's 2-part song High Water Everywhere.

    As for other references: Robert Johnson, W.C. Handy, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Bessie Smith, and Son House all lived in Clarksdale, MS. It is in the heart of cotton country, and slavery thrived there. It is a place where black people were murdered with impunity into the 1960's. Every other location mentioned in the song has deep ties to the Civil Rights struggle and the history of the Blues. How you find time to cite New Morning while ignoring the contents of the song you're trying to explain is beyond me, but let's get to the things you do discuss.

    To get from Vicksburg to Kansas City, you'd have to pass through Tennessee, the state where "Darwin" was put on trial in 1925 (at the height of Charley Patton's fame, by the way).

    George Lewes was a late Victorian positivist philosopher who advocated on Darwin's behalf. Their letters to each other are available online.

    Positivists taught that the only defensible points of view were those based on empirical evidence. Informed by Hume and Kant, positivists were highly critical of metaphysics. As such, they were not impressed by religious claims.

    When you claim that Dylan uses Lewes to warn against naturalism, you are saying that Dylan has no idea who Lewes was or what he taught. I understand that many sites have the name spelled "Lewis", so it's an understandable oversight.

    But then you propose that the judge condemning Darwin gives us a peek into Dylan's point of view. If that is true, then Dylan is using a lawless judge's fatwa against an infidel to "undermine the very foundation" of an evidence-based worldview. The only "crime" Darwin can be accused of is thought crime; he articulated an idea that threatens some religious worldviews.

    So you have actually proposed that America's most brilliant living artist would use a murderous tyrant to embody his own desire to suppress ideas with which he disagrees. I don't claim to understand every Bob Dylan song or to know anything about his personal values, but you make him out to be a character out of 1984.

    Fortunately, it's clear that you have absolutely no idea what you're talking about.

    1. Hi Barry, Thanks for interacting with this post and contributing your insights. You and I agree that Dylan is, in this great song, "articulating an idea that threatens some religious worldviews." The religious worldview that he is undermining is the materialist or naturalistic worldview that answers that question of what is the thing or the process from which everything else comes, with reference to matter and energy and strictly material processes. This theory, Neo-Darwinian evolution, though widely followed is really quite weak and rightly deserves the rebuke.

      But I don't appreciate your ad hominem fallacy in your last paragraph. That is a bad habit of those who understand that they can't answer the argument on its merits, so they revert to a childish attack on the person giving the argument. It is really poor form and you need to stop it, or in the words, of that Satellite Dish Commercial, "I'll have to block you." Cheers, Doug

    2. To get from Vicksburg to Kansas City you don't come within a hundred miles of Tennessee. Just pointing that out.

    3. "This theory, Neo-Darwinian evolution, though widely followed is really quite weak"

      On the contrary, the evidence for Neo-Darwinism is very strong and very copious. A good summary can be had by reading Jerry Coyne "Why Evolution Is True".

      I don't think the case that Dylan is rebuking the theory has been made.

  6. Doug,

    As you know, I apologized on Twitter before you read my comment, so your threat isn't necessary.

    That said, you're using my admittedly undue ad hominem as cover. You simply don't engage with the content of the song, yet claim the ability to tease an obscure meaning from one line uttered by a "bad guy".

    And to be clear, I said that Darwin, not Dylan, threatened religious worldviews. I think even Ken Ham and Richard Dawkins could agree on that!

  7. You have failed to do anything other than pull together widely separated quotes from different times and contexts and claim that they serve some unifying purpose. This piece of neo-con nonsense is quite without value!

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. My first comment contained a number of spelling errors I deleted and corrected it. Didn't notice 'Preview' option.

  9. Which side are you on?

    Dylan ain't sayin'!

    He wants Darwin whether dead or alive.

    Makes for good dramatic tension - the brawn- brains duality.

    Poe: Murders On The Rue Morgue - the ape did it, the detective solves it
    Wilde: Picture Of Dorian Gray: The artist keeps Apollo forever young.

  10. PS:I use 'Apollo' in the broadest meaning of the term- Wilde refers to mythological Doros(Dorian)

    1. Dorus, that should be. His father- Hellen.