How High is the Water Mama?

It once rained for twenty-one days straight in Johnny Cash’s childhood home of Dyess, Arkansas during the winter of 1937. In 2006 it rained for 32 days straight here in Seattle just missing our personal best of 33 days from 1953. So, I feel like an expert in such matters. Rain does something to a person that other phenomenon just doesn’t do. It’s like being in a bad relationship. Not a terrible one, or an abusive one, not one that’s up and down, but a steady, plodding thing, relentlessly slow like a George Romero zombie and after 32 days it might as well be eating  your brains.

It’s October now and the rain sits on the horizon like a wraith. It’s coming and we all know it. It’s shadow can be seen falling across faces. There’s a haunt in our eyes, conversations turn desperate as we cling to the dwindling sunshine.

In 1937 Dyess, Arkansas though, it was a different kind of thing, not so much a chain rattler as malevolent poltergeist. Their drizzle tuned to into a downpour that wouldn’t stop, the kind that makes a person cling to Genesis 9:11. Cash biographer, Christopher Wren, writes that it would subside a little during the nights and then freeze only to roar back in the morning.

The Cash house was wasn’t even two years old in 1937. It had been built under the Federal Emergency Relief Administration created by Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 to help impoverished farmers get their own land. A radical proposition. If anyone says this hard brambled mud land on the banks of the Mississippi river was some giant federal handout they should try clearing it, planting it and picking the cotton there for a summer.

By the time the decision was made to evacuate Dyess the river had flooded and the land was already three feet underwater and gaining on the house. The Cash’s made a float of sorts to ferry them to a waiting bus. The bus itself drove to Wilson, Arkansas over submerged roads staked off with with poles so the driver could find his way.

Johnny Cash was five years old and dressed in a Sunday suit. Years later the memory of that flood would be sung about in his song Five Feet High and Rising. The below recording comes from April 17, 1970 when Johnny performed for President Nixon at the Whitehouse. It can be found on Live Around the World: Bootleg, Vol. III.

Five Feet High and Rising, Johnny Cash

Live Around the World: Bootleg, Vol. III is both wonderful and unnecessary at the same time. There’s not one song on the two disc set that the ardent fan hasn’t heard elsewhere in studio or live version, but as with other singers like this man, the beauty comes in the telling. Would it be to always to hear a Father’s voice and the old stories over again. To hear it as it was before you, before even the thought of you as echoed in the Paul Simon line “when I was still single and life was great.” We don’t often get the pleasure of hearing our fathers in their early years, so, hearing Johnny, at least for us of a certain age, will have to do.

Post Script ~ We all have our own personal floods I suppose. We’ve had a hard couple of months of the little one being sick and not sleeping and when sleep does come it’s restless slumber and rarely lasts beyond 2 AM. Last night, he only cried for twenty minutes and it was bliss for a few hours. 2 AM came and we awoke, but not to a crying babe this night, but instead to the drip of water. Our out-of-town upstairs neighbor’s hot water heater had burst. Why are they always out of town? My home looks like something out of Contagion!

How high is the water mama?

Five feet high and rising.


About Iaan Hughes

Iaan Hughes is a deejay on 91.3 KBCS in Seattle. He plays country & western music.
This entry was posted in Country, Folk, Honky Tonk, Music, Radio, Rockabilly, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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