Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood): unpicking the message in Bob Dylan’s song

by Tony Attwood

There are two versions of this song recorded: the Basement Tapes version (from 1967 and re-issued in 1975), and the Greatest Hits version in 1971.

It was first played in concert in March 1995, and played off and on until October 2005.   There is (at the moment of writing this) a video on line of a performance of the song.

The opening of the song tells us exactly where it is going

Crash on the levee, mama
Water’s gonna overflow
Swamp’s gonna rise
No boat’s gonna row
Now, you can train on down

In short this is the absolute end, not just a flood but The Flood in the style of the Old Testament.  And it is a theme that Dylan is interested in, at least to the extent of writing at least one other song seemingly specifically on the same topic: High Water (For Charley Patton).

What makes the song particularly interesting (apart from being a rollicking good bit of fun) is the chorus:

But oh mama, ain’t you gonna miss your best friend now?
You’re gonna have to find yourself
Another best friend, somehow

The simplest interpretation is that this is Doomsday, the end of the world, the Second Coming, and yet the music goes rocking along – and this of course is the regular Dylan view of the world.   Those who have the true faith are ok – the rest of us: tough.

So with that sort of approach to the world, yes, when the end comes you can afford to do some rock n roll because, well, you’re ok, and for those who aren’t – well, that’s their fault.  They were warned, they were given the opportunity to change, but they chose not to.

So the absolute certainty is there…

Now, don’t you try an’ move me
You’re just gonna lose
There’s a crash on the levee
And, mama, you’ve been refused

And this of course is my fate, since I refuse to believe, so I’m gonna be refused entry to heaven too.  I’m not quite sure what good that does the Superior Being, but He’s got the power and I ain’t, so if that is what He wants (if He exists) then, He gets his way – and He’ll get away with it, because there is nothing else out there to stop Him.

I’m not quite sure about what happens later in the lyrics

Well, that high tide’s risin’
Mama, don’t you let me down
Pack up your suitcase
Mama, don’t you make a sound

but then I am not really sure about a lot of this song.  Is Bob really going to try and smuggle “mama” out of this situation?  I don’t quite know.

It’s jolly, it rocks along, a lot of us (most of us I guess) are going to die, and Bob sits up on his throne (or at least on a high rock) looking down on the rest of us telling us that there is not much we can do about.  No, “repent before it is too late,” rather, just a case of “that’s how it is”.

Now at this moment I can write a piece saying that my country is in a total mess and is falling apart, and really at this stage there ain’t much we can do about it, but in doing that I would then say, “and I’m going to suffer just like everyone else.”   Bob however has no such difficulty – he seems to be rising above.

Of course there is another way of looking at this.  A writer of fiction or a maker of movies, isn’t saying “this is how it is” – rather he/she is offering a entertainment, something to interest the reader or viewer.

And maybe that is how we ought to take all these songs: as works of fiction.  It’s just that there’s always that temptation to see it otherwise.

There’s a very different version here

What is on the site

1: Over 400 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.

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2 Responses to Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood): unpicking the message in Bob Dylan’s song

  1. Babette says:

    No reason to get excited.

    The short modern version of the story:

    A wife is leaving the husband.
    He gets angry and out of control
    It is the end of his world.
    He curses her with a ban:
    Go to hell –
    (Probably also some other words, that I don´t know)

    The ban is not strong enough to make her stay
    (she is a nonbeliever)
    so he adds
    Dont think I will come and help you, when you need me.
    I will not.

    And finally:
    You can´t survive without me.
    Some women stay – some don´t.

    Believe it or not.
    The same story happens all the time.

    Mostly they become good friends again.
    Some men even change the exploded wheel of the ex s car
    (a friend told me)

  2. Ed McEowen says:

    Babette, that makes perfect sense.

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