Levon Helm in his prime. Photo courtesy of stereogum.com
“Listen to this,” Ed said to his hirsute companion. “A guy named Robbie Robertson of a group called simply The Band wrote it. He’s from Canada. But the singer is from Arkansas.”
The singer, Levon Helm, deftly and powerfully massaged a drum beat, as he sang in the voice of the post-war Southern man, Virgil Caine:
“Like my father before me, I will work the land
And like my brother above me, who took a rebel’s stand
Just eighteen, proud and brave, but a Yankee laid him in his grave,
I swear by the mud below my feet, You can’t raise a Caine up when he’s in defeat.
The night they drove Old Dixie down and all the bells were ringing
The night they drove Old Dixie Down and all the people were singing,
They went, Na, Na, Na-na-na …and a Yankee laid him in his grave.”
“Virgil Caine was his name, and he worked the Danville train,” Melville repeated. “Ah yes, that is strong, deep bitters.”
As Ed’s CD played, horns blared and billowed, evoking both a plaintive dirge and a fanfare in a sequence of heaving choruses. The singer’s Southern accent and impassioned singing seem to be a genuine brother’s lament. The music felt strangely hybrid yet so old and familiar that Ed was not surprised when Melville’s old sailor’s body began softly nodding to the musical waves and the rhythmic verse.
Ed also knew that this song expressed the Southern pain and tragedy that this Northern writer had considered and articulated so deeply in writing Battle Pieces. That against-the-grain poetry and prose collection strove to explore the courage and the brutality of both sides, and to mute the North’s patriotic victor’s pride, to consider the people and culture now defeated and the unfathomable loss, even as the horrendously bloody war would end American chattel slavery and restore the Union called America.
But Ed also sensed that The Band’s brave, fraught song aligned with Melville’s larger philosophic stance — that collective wartime goodness rarely exists without the old sins, like pride and contempt, lurking close behind the victor’s glories, ready to obscure charity and compassion…”The glory of war falls short of its pathos — a pathos which now at last ought to disarm all animosity.”
– From Melville’s Trace or, the Jackal
“Where do we go from here?” is another line from a song by The Band, whose three great singers are gone: Richard Manuel (to suicide), Rick Danko and now Levon Helm, who died April 19, after a long, arduous battle with throat cancer.
The loss may feel palpable from the innards of musically sentient Americans and countless music lovers worldwide.
Perhaps no musical group in the history of pop culture had such three distinctive lead voices — as individual song interpreters and as a two-and-three part harmony as strong and sinewy as a Redwood, as deep and filled with currents of mystery as the Mississippi, and often sounding as alive and as old as those mighty trees and river way.
Yet the simple singularity of the group’s name was born less of self-importance than self-effacement. They’d wanted to call themselves The Crackers, until Capitol Records, their new record label, nixed that. Nevertheless, in time, the unadorned, generic name they chose grew to signify the ultimate and definitive band.
Besides The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down (a hit for Joan Baez) the great songs of The Band, -mostly penned by guitarist Robbie Robertson – unfurl in the memory like the exposed underside of America, our history set slightly askew and mythical, yet feeling vividly true: The Weight, Tears Of Rage, Chest Fever, Rag Mama Rag, Unfaithful Servant, It Makes No Difference, Stage Fright, Up on Cripple Creek, When You Awake, Life Is A Carnival, Acadian Driftwood, Ophelia etc, and some stunning covers and collaborations, including Bob Dylan’s I Shall Be Released, Nothing was Delivered, This Wheel’s on Fire, and When I Paint My Masterpiece; and 4% Pantomime with Van Morrison, Don’t Do It, Mystery Train…
Acadian Driftwood was the Canadian epic to complement the song about Dixie driven down — this one a heartbreakingly somber saga of displaced ethnic northerners.
Right at the height of the popularity of psychedelic music, The Band had suddenly redefined the possibilities of American vernacular music, in a musical language that almost any American might understand and feel. They laid the groundwork for the magnificently detailed and complex grains of today’s roots music — R&B, rockabilly, blues, gospel, bluegrass and country, melded and ringing, from church steeples to gambling dens, to dusty carnivals and highways.
Most music fans know they did it at first by playing for years with Arkansas-born rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins, mastering their many instruments and deepening soul on the road. After forming their own band led by Helm, sharp-eared Bob Dylan heard and hired them, as his back-up band after losing the Butterfield Blues Band players who electro-shocked Newport Folk Festival in 1965. The Band reformed on their own terms and produced two instant classic albums, Music from big Pink and The Band, and did one of the first great DIY albums of a new era, The Basement Tapes, recorded in the bowels of their legendary Woodstock house, Big Pink.
The Band’s story would culminate all too soon, it seemed, in their last live performance, a celebration shared with their many gifted musical friends. This ultimate farewell concert was captured brilliantly by Martin Scorsese in the film The Last Waltz in 1976.
Some may know Helm for his credible role as Loretta Lynn’s father in the 1980 film Coal Miner’s Daughter.
Through those transformative music years, Helm — the band’s sole American among four Canadians – provided the deeply Southern authenticity to this greatest of North American bands. The group appeared on the cover of TIME in 1970 and a career climax was perhaps playing at Watkins Glen, NY, in 1973 with the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead, before 600,000.
It was uncanny that four Canadians could mine, comprehend and interpret the hoary complexities, contradictions and beauties of “Old, Weird America,” as Greil Marcus once put it.
Canadian author Jason Schneider addressed what The Band accomplished as a socio-cultural breakthrough:
“Why should rock-and-roll still be the cause of social divisions? Was it not true that what they and Dylan had been doing to entertain themselves at Big Pink was no different from what generations of North Americans have been doing for hundreds of years? Once this became clear, ideas of conflict between young and old, and unity based on anything other than shared humanity, seemed utterly incomprehensible.” 1
Yet the voices and music emanating from that musical Eden in Woodstock carried shards of all the crazy stuff that fed all those conflicts. Helm played with funk, swing, power and precision, which propelled the group though its many layered scenarios and strange interludes. So the music, deep as it often felt, rarely ever became ponderous.
Arkansan Helm’s singing sometimes had the sharp pitch of a man carrying bales of pain and secret treasures, and then the haunted wail of a coyote at dusk. The mixed metaphor is intentional. He had a skill that seemed wholly, yet beyond, human. This was an unmatched musical genius one could hear and witness as he played and sang at once, like few musicians ever have. He sometimes seemed like a slightly super-human beast of ambidextrous burden.
He also played mandolin on occasion. And he smoked heavily.
Helm’s solo career almost died when throat cancer struck in the late 1990s. His comeback was astonishing and deeply moving to behold, considering the all the 28 radiations and the affliction evident in his singing. Yet he played on, to raise money for his treatments, and produced several wonderful albums including Levon Helm/Ramble at the Ryman, Grammy winner for best Americana album 2011.
A crafty smile always seemed hidden somewhere in Levon Helm’s most anguished expression. He was a shrewd artist of many layers, but the soul’s real deal.
If this reads like a eulogy to The Band, that is because the group’s voices are stilled, even if their two greatest pure musicians — classically trained multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson and the searing guitarist and songwriting master Robertson — remain alive.
But those two provide the majestic backdrop and deep story that will now only be retold in the electronically reborn past of The Band’s indelible legacy.
Despite the bitter tragedies of Virgil Cane’s South and of Acadian Driftwood, the song co-written early on with Dylan, “Tears of Rage,” strives towards pan-generational redemption:
We carry you in our arms/ on Independence Day/ and now you’d throw us all aside/ and put us on our way. / Oh, what dear daughter ‘neath the sun/ would treat a father so/ to wait upon him hand and foot/ and always tell him “No?”/ Tears of rage, tears of grief/ why am I the one who must be the thief?/ Come to me now, you know/ we’re so alone/ and life is brief.
1 Jason Schneider, Whispering Pines: The Northern Roots of American Music …from Hank Snow to The Band, ECW Press, 2009, 277.
— Kevin Lynch