by Jochen Markhorst
“The madly complicated modern world was something I took little interest in,” Dylan writes in Chronicles, looking back on his early years in New York. “What was swinging, topical and up to date for me was stuff like the Titanic sinking, the Galveston flood.”
The Galveston flooding takes place in September 1900, and is the meanest flood that anybody’s seen. Estimates go up to twelve thousand human lives and even with the most prudent estimate (six thousand dead) it is the most deadly storm in the history of the United States.
Abundant water, storm weather, drowning and flooding continue to fascinate Dylan to this day. Even before his first album the song about the drowned Naomi Wise is on his repertoire, as well as “Backwater Blues”, after that it rains a Hard Rain, a live album is called Before The Flood, a tour Rolling Thunder, Dylan uses the flood image in songs like “Wedding Song” and “In The Summertime” and sings actual floods in the 21st century in “The Levee’s Gonna Break” and “High Water”.
According to Robbie Robertson “Down In The Flood” evolves “goofing around”, down in the Big Pink basement. Just before that, Dylan and The Band fiddle with a John Lee Hooker goldie oldie: “Tupelo Blues”, a 1959 song about a flood disaster in Mississippi, 1927. Apparently, that triggers memories of a song Dylan had on his early years repertoire, which we know from The Minneapolis Party Tape: the “James Alley Blues” from 1927 by Richard “Rabbit” Brown. The melody leans against it, but especially the reuse of the words sugar for sugar, salt for salt proves the connection.
Dylan scrolls through the Bible in these days. Criss-cross, but especially the New Testament Gospel of Mark strikes a chord, as shown again by the two references on John Wesley Harding, which is being written in the same days – and he probably had an aha-insight at Mark 9:49: “Every sacrifice shall be salted with salt”.
In terms of content, however, there is little to puzzle; Dylan composes an associative poem. From Galveston one can train on down to the other side of Galveston Bay, to Virginia Point – not to Williams Point. Williams Point, for that matter, is a geographical dead end anyhow. In Canada, an hour’s drive from Robertson’s birthplace Toronto, there is one to be found, a street somewhere in Pennsylvania has that name, in the harsh Nova Scotia it is the name of a piece of inhospitable empty land and even more inhospitable is the Williams Point at the South Pole. There is no Williams Point near a flood catastrophe, in any case.
Thus, what remains is a meaning behind the words, leading to a “more ordinary” blues cliché: man dumps woman. The broken dam, the overflowing water, the swamp level rising – enough is enough, the cup is full, apparently. Girl, you’ll have to find another one. It is really over, he says slightly cynically, with beautiful understatements, in the two following verses. “You’ve been refused,” pack up your suitcase and off you go – here flood seems to be a metaphor for the restrained anger that will erupt if Mama dares to say one more word.
“Crash On The Levee”, as the song is often called, stays on Dylan’s mind and to-do list for a while, after the first goofing around with The Band. It is picked up early on by artists such as Sandy Denny and Flat & Scruggs. Mainly for that reason Dylan thinks it is a Great Hit and he decides to re-record the song for Greatest Hits Vol. II. Without a band, only with a last-minute mobilised Happy Traum on second guitar.
Harry Peter Traum occasionally pops up, in Dylan’s background. In the early 60s he already sings along with Dylan on “Let Me Die In My Footsteps” and with his New World Singers he is one of the first to record “Blowin’ In The Wind” in 1962. According to band member Bob Cohen they were even the very first:
“When Moe Asch (Folkways) decided to release an album of topical songs on Broadside Records (Broadside, the topical song magazine that first printed many of Dylan’s songs along with others) we were asked to sing “Blowin’ In the Wind” and we did – making it the first recording of that song, even before Bob did it on Columbia Records.”
Dylan’s special bond with the New World Singers is confirmed by the bard himself in his autobiography Chronicles, in which he says he was pretty close with the guys at the time. In ’63 he also pens the liner notes for the album that the group releases on Atlantic Records, writing particularly nice things about both the songs and the individual group members.
So inviting Happy Traum, ten years later, to play along with a few songs for Greatest Hits Vol. II, does not completely fall from the sky. Traum moved to Woodstock in ’67, is practically Dylan’s neighbour and in those Basement months he occasionally joins Dylan in his living room, picking informally. Still, Happy is quite surprised when Dylan suddenly calls him from New York. Whether he could come by tomorrow, could he bring his guitar and a banjo and oh yeah, how about a bass, too? “Never mind that I didn’t own a bass, and had never played one in public before. I borrowed one – fast.”
Laden with those three instruments, Happy takes the trip from Woodstock to New York headlong by public transport. The next day when he arrives at Columbia Studios on West 54th Street, he is surprised to see that he is the only session musician in that large, empty studio space. They start with “Only A Hobo”, but it was not coming together. The recording is released in 2013 on The Bootleg Series 10 – Another Self Portrait and is actually very nice. Traum plays an attractive banjo part and sings a pretty second voice, and on hearing it again, more than forty years later, Happy now thinks: it ain’t half-bad. But in those days, Dylan probably also hears they do not succeed in rivaling Rod Stewart’s beautiful, unsurpassed cover from a year before (on Gasoline Alley, 1971).
However, it does serve as a warm-up; the three songs Traum and Dylan record hereafter are all very successful, are all recorded quickly and are all selected for that Greatest Hits album. “I Shall Be Released” runs like a charm and before I knew it Bob was grinning and we were on to the next song.
“I had heard “Down in the Flood” in bits and pieces during the Basement Tapes sessions, but the version that we did at this recording was totally impromptu — at least for me. It’s a blues in G, so it wasn’t hard to find some things to play. Again, Bob was strumming the rhythm with his flatpick, so I just tried to compliment his singing with some sliding licks and bluesy, fingerstyle fills on the high strings. The whole thing went by so fast that I didn’t realize it was a take until we played it back.”
On his website, Happy says in October 2015 that he is incredibly proud of his contribution to these three songs, but most content he is with the last song they record, with “You Ain’t Going Nowhere”, which is also done without any rehearsal in two takes. Happy plays the banjo and sings the second voice, but this is also the song for which he has dragged that bass along – this is where he makes his bass debut. Shortly afterwards, it yields him an invitation to the album that Dylan produces for Allen Ginsberg.
No matter how successful the recording of “Down In The Flood” is, it does seem like a final chord: the song is put in a drawer for 23 years. Dylan unexpectedly unveils the song again in 1995, as the opening song for the Never Ending Tour, performing it in an infectious swamp blues rock arrangement, with a screaming guitar solo. It seems to please him. The following years it remains on the set list, with as a crowning culmination the mean second re-recording, this time for Masked & Anonymous (2002).
Meanwhile, “Down In The Flood” continues to inspire. Blood, Sweat & Tears (1972) turns it into jazz funk, the Beau Brummels produce a slightly psychedelic version, Sandy Denny’s cover is carried by a vaudeville piano, there are folk variations, with banjo and all, Fairport Convention chooses the blues and The Black Crowes play a steamy, drawn-out and sweaty rock ‘n’ roll rendition.
The best cover brings the song home again: deep in the sweltering swamps of Louisiana. The Derek Trucks Band opens the album Already Free in 2009 like the soundtrack of a thriller. An acoustic guitar lays down a dangerously descending melody line, an electric slide places sinister accents and a third guitar imitates the croaking of a toad choir in the background. Crickets tapping dryly on the rim of the snare drum and propel the first minute to the second verse, where bass, drum and ripping guitar crash in, like a tidal wave through the broken dam. After the second verse, Trucks can demonstrate his undisputed mastery on the slide for the first time (again in the final).
Really scary it gets in the last minute and a half, in that final. Unrecognizable, unearthly horns roll in slowly and darkly – dark and slow and ominous like a rising water level, indeed.
“Down In The Flood” is a highlight in Dylan’s songbook, and Derek Trucks still knows how to elevate it.
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