Bob Dylan Countdown #176: “The Levee’s Gonna Break”

When I heard there was going to be a song called “The Levee’s Gonna Break” on Bob Dylan’s 2006 album Modern Times, my first instinct was that it would be some sort of commentary of the horrors of Hurricane Katrina, which did its damage just a year earlier. How silly of me. Dylan has never been that obvious or predictable.

Of course, Dylan surely knew that other people would make this association, which then gave him the leverage to toy with these expectations and make an entirely different kind of statement. His “Levee” certainly does seem to hint at a great calamity in the verses featuring the title refrain. In the other verses, however, it’s a much more tricky story to pigeonhole.

Singing in the first person, Dylan’s character seems to be on the run from a far more personal flood. His interactions with an unnamed woman range from prickly to precious. He’s on the make and on the dole all at once, but he’s clear-eyed about that the rising water all around him even as he tries an end run around it.

It is a fascinating perspective that makes the song impossible to follow in any linear fashion. The fractured narrative can be daunting; it’s better almost to let individual couplets makes their separate impact and then add all of that impact up at song’s end. Or you can just sit back and bop along to the bouncy blues performance turned in by Bob’s crack session band.

The final verdict:  “Some people still sleepin’, some people are wide awake.” Some have already been jarred from their blissful ignorance; for the rest, their time is coming. By adapting a song first written in response to a disastrous flood in 1927, yet giving it his own twists and turns, Dylan draws parallels with the past while insinuating that the present situation has created a brand new set of ills. 

The high degree of difficulty inherent in that trick ensures that this song is a bit of a grower, requiring more than a few listens to sufficiently make its point. And, even if it never does make that point for you, the musical excellence of “The Levee’s Gonna Break” should compensate.

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