Find me on a certain day and The Basement Tapes is my favorite Bob Dylan album. It has been written about extensively, most notably by Greil Marcus in The Old Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes and has been the subject of two different releases by Dylan: the first official release in 1975 with 15 Dylan songs and 8 demos performed by The Band and a the complete set with 115 performances on 2014’s The Bootleg Series Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete. When I first bought the 1975 version, it was as if finding a set of directions to a town left off of all official maps of a territory. The town itself was filled with print-the-legend characters and deeds never to be found in history books.
After his 1966 motorcycle accident that grounded him from his spine-and-soul diminishing touring schedule, Dylan hunkered down with his family in Woodstock, NY to rest, recover, and reset himself. Dylan described that time after the accident to Scott Cohen of Spin in a December 1985 interview:
“[The motorcycle accident] put me down for a while. I couldn’t go on doing what I had been. I was pretty wound up before that accident happened. It set me down so I could see things in a better perspective. I wasn’t seeing anything in any kind of perspective. I probably would have died if I had kept on going the way I had been.”
During that time, Dylan got the urge to play some music again, summoning The Hawks, who had backed him on those crazed tours, to Woodstock. The musical sound of what they created eventually to be known as The Basement Tapes was a downshift to a lower gear. This music was recorded in a room at Dylan’s house at first and then in the basement of Big Pink, the house occupied by a few members of The Hawks (soon to become The Band). It was truly a workshop, a place for this group of musicians to improvise and experiment. Since the music was never intended for formal release, a spirit of play envelopes everything, even the serious songs. Out of the 115 different performances that were eventually released, there are three types of Basement Tapes songs: 1) covers of another artists’ work; 2) playful attempts at new songs, sometimes even the merest sketches; and 3) demos of song written for other artists to perform. These songs were never meant to be released as a formal album. The Basement Tapes documents a process, which is a big part of the reason why the music remains so alluring.
“Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood)” is the quintessential Basement Tapes performance. It is a good example of a demo, the third type recorded at Big Pink. The narrator of the song addresses his mama throughout, telling her that there has been a crash on the levee and that “Water’s gonna overflow / Swamp’s gonna rise / No boat’s gonna row.” Is this the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927? Perhaps, as Dylan and The Band had done their own version of John Lee Hooker’s Tupelo Blues earlier in the basement, turning the tragedy of the big flood into an opportunity to learn how to spell the words “Mississippi” and “Tupelo.” (Truly, check out both performances via the playlist linked below. Hooker’s version is a beautiful stately blues, and The Basement Tapes version is Dylan’s hilarious attempt to sound like John Lee Hooker.)
Back to “Crash on the Levee” – Dylan name checks a place called “Williams Point.” Dylan internet sleuths have tried to find such a place, perhaps solidifying it as a locale near where the 1927 Mississippi flood happened. No such luck. Williams Point is a red herring, much like many red herrings found in The Basement Tapes.
The song is certainly about a flood, but really it’s really about mama, the woman the narrator is addressing. The narrator says, despite the flood,
You can bust your feet
You can rock this joint
But oh mama, ain’t you gonna miss your best friend now?
You’re gonna have to find yourself
Another best friend, somehow
Dylan is crying “oh mama” and delivering an ultimatum, the same as he is on Blonde on Blonde’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.” In that song from only a year before The Basement Tapes, he asks, “Oh mama, can this really be the end?” It really feels like the end, the end of everything. In “Crash on the Levee,” it’s much more playful: “Oh mama, ain’t you gonna miss your best friend now?” You don’t know what you have, so be careful in that flood because I might be gone. Unlike the sense of foreboding in “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” (see the Recliner Notes post on the song), the ultimatum in “Crash on the Levee” is delivered as a playful tease.
In the second verse, Dylan sings:
Well, it’s sugar for sugar
And salt for salt
If you go down in the flood
It’s gonna be your own fault
In 1927’s “James Alley Blues,” Rabbit Brown sings:
I’ve been givin’ you sugar for sugar, let you get salt for salt
I’ll give you sugar for sugar, let you get salt for salt
And if you can’t get ‘long with me well it’s your own fault
“James Alley Blues” was collected on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, which was released in 1952. This set was highly influential on the folk music explosion of the late 50s and early 60s. Dylan knew that collection well, routinely performing many of the songs that were shared and passed around in the Greenwich Village folk community. It’s no surprise that he is playing off of “James Alley Blues” in “Crash on the Levee.” The connections between the spirit of the Anthology of American Folk Music and The Basement Tapes are explored extensively in Marcus’s book The Old Weird America. Hell, the thesis of his book can be found with Dylan’s sampling of Rabbit Brown in “Crash on the Levee.”
In the next verse after quoting Rabbit Brown, Dylan sings: “Now, it’s king for king / Queen for queen.” Dylan has taken the cadence of Rabbit Brown’s line and added another kind of consideration, substituting “king” for “sugar” and “salt” for “queen.” In this verse, Dylan is playing off the original line to widen the scope of the impact of the flood: “It’s gonna be the meanest flood / That anybody’s seen.” The flood will certainly test the will of mama, the narrator, and everyone else as well. Rabbit Brown ultimately wonders if “Sometimes I think that you too sweet to die / And another time I think you oughta be buried alive,” which is not unlike what’s happening in “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.” Dylan has no thoughts nearly as nefarious in “Crash on the Levee.” He is instead suggesting to mama to “Pack up your suitcase… don’t you make a sound.” Calling the message of the song a threat is a little strong. It’s a nudge, a reminder for mama. Don’t take me for granted.
As we know, Dylan didn’t release “Crash on the Levee” after recording it with The Band in the basement in 1967. Four years later when the record company was set to release Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. II, Dylan decided to recut a few of The Basement Tapes songs for the collection with Happy Traum, folk musician and an old friend of Dylan’s from the Greenwich Village days. One of the songs recorded in that session is a song now called “Down in the Flood.” The performance in that version lends itself even more to Rabbit Brown’s “James Alley Blues,” especially in the guitar interplay between Dylan and Happy Traum.
Both The Basement Tapes and the Greatest Hits Vol. II versions are endlessly listenable. Dylan’s vocal performances are different in the two versions, but they’re both infectious. Despite the nature of the flood and the warnings to mama that she may need another best friend soon, Dylan can’t help himself in sharing the playfulness of this song.
Image attribution: By johndan – Big Pink, CC BY 2.0, more info here.