Friday, May 1, 2015

When the Levee Breaks and Modern Times

If it keeps on rainin', levee's goin' to break,
If it keeps on rainin', levee's goin' to break,
When The Levee Breaks I'll have no place to stay.
~ Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie

As you drive across the Midwest from Chicago to Minneapolis-St. Paul on Interstate 94, there's a place with some eye-catching rock formations in the midst of endless miles of rolling hills. Wisconsin is cheese country, so this singular deviation from trees and pastureland was memorable the first time I saw it. Due to the spectacular features of the glacially formed gorges there, a healthy tourist business emerged with resorts, indoor water parks and a wide assortment of entertainment diversions.

This area, including nearby Lake Delton, came to be known as the Wisconsin Dells, The Dells for short. The nearby town of Lake Delton only has about 2500 citizens, but the 20 or so resorts about the lake boast 10 times that many occupants, and the Dells region as a tourist destination brings in as many as five million tourists a year, turning a modestly remote scenic wonder into an estimated billion dollar cash machine. The lake itself was man made in 1927, the same year as the Great Mississippi Flood that spawned the blues lament “When the Levee Breaks” cited above and made famous by Led Zeppelin on their fourth album in 1971.

A few years ago, after a very wet spring, it rained 12 inches in one day, and to the shock of all... 400 feet of levee did break. At 2 a.m. Lake Delton spilled out into the Wisconsin River and was no more. One Lake Delton resident said it was like watching a bathtub drain out. With the tourist season kicking into high gear, the 20 resorts on the perimeter of the lake would experience severe repercussions. A CNN story on the event stated, “When the water of Lake Delton ripped through the highway and drained into the Wisconsin River this week, so did the lifeline for much of the surrounding community.”

As I reflected on this event, it brought to mind Dylan's revamped version of the song, "The Levee's Gonna Break", which he recorded in 2006, more than four decades after another song about hard rain. His Modern Times rendition is upbeat and bouncy and doesn't convey any of the seriousness of Hard Rain's Gonna Fall, or the Led Zeppelin rendition that was a true cover, Zeppelin-style, of course.
"Oh cryin' won't help you, prayin' won't do no good."

If it keep on rainin' the levee gonna break
If it keep on rainin' the levee gonna break
Everybody saying this is a day only the Lord could make

On Modern Times, Dylan's first album to become a #1 in the U.S. since Desire, and first to debut at #1 the first week of its release, this song quickly takes a sideways turn away from the notion of sorrow and loss. Or does it? If you follow it through the theme is there, but in a most unusual filament of storyline. You can read the lyrics at

Dylan enjoyed the song enough to perform it 70 times in concert up till last summer in Pori, Finland. It's a great album, the third in a row produced by Jack Frost.

To circle back to the beginning, it is unlikely anyone had a clue that Lake Delton could empty itself out like that. But that's what makes it so devastating. Everything is all peaches and cream, all the while being clueless that the end is near. Once the foundations have crumbled t's not a matter of if, but when as regards the collapse of the edifice.

As Woody Allen once said, "I'm not afraid of death. I just don't want to be there when it happens." I half feel that way about the Apocalypse.

* * * *

Now that it's May we're counting down to yet another week of Dylan festivities leading up to Bob's 74th birthday. Consider yourself invited.

For tickets to the May 23 Acoustic Salute to the Music of Bob Dylan, click here


Anonymous said...

Excellent reflection on this great song by Bob Dylan. A detailed performance history and more than twenty mp3 links from 2006 up to 2014 can be found at

Ed Newman said...

Thanks for sharing this. Shows, too, that an "old guy" can keep on rockin'

Anonymous said...

Well done. I've driven that route a few times, usually heading from sweet home Chicago to see Dylan in Minneapolis-St. Paul. The water parks appear miles after the billboards promising tons of good family fun. Your insights on Lake Delton remind me of visiting the Johnstown Flood museum in Pennsylvania. You can still discern the contours of the lake, which has now been a valley for 125 years. Looking forward to a shorter trip to see Dylan in Milwaukee on the 13th. He won't play "Levee," but we're sure to be treated to some high caliber Jack Frost goodness. Cheers.