Recommended CDs

Sunday, 31 August 2008

The wind began to howl... Good luck this time, NOLA

Crash on the levee, water's gonna overflow

One thing I neglected to mention in my previous blog entry about Modern Times is that its worldwide official release day was also the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina making landfall in Lousiana. Meanwhile, President Bush strummed a guitar [right] in California while New Orleans drowned, a lasting symbol of his presidency.

Perhaps the release date of Modern Times was a coincidence; but on the other hand, it does feature a song entitled The Levee's Gonna Break. This is the album's most transparent "borrowing", the song clearly deriving from When the Levee Breaks by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie, which was about the Mississippi Flood of 1927, a calamity that inspired several blues songs. (Incidentally, Memphis Minnie's shout-out to Ma Rainey is the model for Dylan's name-dropping of Alicia Keys in Thunder on the Mountain; but Bob was sampling Memphis Minnie as far back as Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again, as the outtake of that song released on Bootleg Series 7: No Direction Home shows.) A youtube user has made a very appropriate video to the Kansas Joe/Memphis Minnie version.

The most famous version of the song is the one by Led Zeppelin on their 1971 album Led Zeppelin IV. Dylan's new version is a curate's egg; it quotes some lines directly from the original, and adds some of his own that might refer to either the 1927 or the 2005 disaster:

Everybody saying this is a day only the Lord could make

Some people on the road carrying everything that they own

But other lines are unrelated and could be sampled from a dozen blues songs or improvised randomly in a way reminiscent of 10,000 Men on Under the Red Sky. One line seems to allude sarcastically to the plight of the proletariat (in the manner of Joe Hill's "Pie in the Sky When You Die"), thus harking back to Workingman's Blues #2:

Few more years of hard work, then there'll be a 1,000 years of happiness

But the previous lines incongruously refer to Carl Perkin's rockabilly classic "Put Your Cat Clothes On", cat clothes of course being what hepcats (guys) and kittens (chicks) wear; the juxtaposition with the more formal-sounding "evening dress" is amusing.

Here's a fine live version of Dylan's version of the song, from Chatillon, Italy 18th June this year:
It's noticeable how much stronger the song has become in live performance this year.

(I found a youtube clip of this performance, but it's only one minute long.)

How typical that Dylan's new title for the song should use his own favourite tense, the immediate future ("gonna"), which he uses so much (particularly in the Basement Tapes era) that it might well be called the Bob Dylan tense.

An early song that uses this tense is A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall. On his visit to the city in 2003, Bob Dylan performed an inspired version of this anthemic song, almost as though he knew what was in store for the city (so it seems with hindsight, which can make a prophecy out of the slightest coincidence). Here is that performance.

They're trying to wash us away

A more recent song about the 1927 flood became suddenly topical in 2005 because of the inevitable parallels between President Coolidge's racist indifference to the plight of Lousiana flood victims and the criminal negligence of the Bush administration. The original version of Randy Newman's Louisiana 1927 is on his 1974 album Good Old Boys, perhaps Newman's masterpiece and an essential album in anybody's record collection. Here is Randy singing it at a benefit for the victims of Hurricane Katrina:

Incidentally, I am relieved, if not surprised, that Randy sticks to his original lyrics and uses the phrase "this poor crackers land." The contemptuous term "crackers" is similar to the more recent "poor white trash", and nails Coolidge's attitude to the flood victims exactly. Other versions of the song, such as Aaron Neville's, for reasons of misguided political correctness substitute a more neutral term ("farmers") that softens the original song's condemnation of Coolidge.

They say prayer has the power to help (Ain't Talkin')

As I write, people are being evacuated from New Orleans in preparation for the landfall of Hurricane Gustav, expected in the early hours of Monday morning. It is sincerely to be hoped that the city rides out this new storm and the levees hold firm this time. Of all the cities in America, New Orleans is the one I'd most like to visit, because of the richness of its musical heritage, the fame of its cuisine, and the celebrated conviviality of its people. Alas, I do not share Dylan's belief in the power of prayer, but my thoughts are with NOLA right now. If I were to frame a prayer, it might be like Lear's in the storm:

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop'd and window'd raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just.

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