Levon Helm (May 26, 1940 - April 19, 2012)
It’s November 1976, and Levon Helm, true to his surname, is at the tiller of a vessel that’s pulling into port. After years sailing from juke joint to dive bar to festival to theater to arena, The Band is coming ashore. For nearly the whole journey, Helm has been at the drums, tacking a steady course amidst the swirling tumult. No one else in The Band travels the straight and narrow, so Helm has to. Robbie Robertson’s guitar playing is all fragmented barbs, little yowls and exhortation with nary a chord progression in sight. Rick Danko’s bass is a drunken sailor. His stumbling lines defy the rigid geometry of the alley he’s traversing even as his serpentine path defines the alley’s dimensions more thoroughly than a surveyor ever could. The Band’s best songs always feature Richard Manuel’s voice: a barn swallow caressing a subtle mist from the bellies of the clouds, before hurtling earthward to pluck a lone berry from the dense shrub; and like that, it’s airborne again, wings spread against the tremulous sun. Meanwhile, Garth Hudson’s organ is a ghost, never taking material form; merely suggesting that someone – or something – has passed through the open door into the space of the song. So it’s left to Levon to propel the craft that is The Band, marshaling their collective energies toward a unified destination. Without Levon The Band would’ve been just a band.
When Levon sang “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” at the Last Waltz, The Band’s farewell at Winterland in San Francisco in November of 1976, the song came to mean something it had never meant before. Prior to this performance I never liked the song much. But at The Last Waltz, Levon sang it knowing it was the last time he ever would.
If you read the lyrics on the page, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is insipid, riddled with clichés about rural life and the honor of impoverishment and defeat. The old meek-shall-inherit-the-earth softshoe doesn’t shine the apple anymore. We’re wise. The meek candidate’s been trounced by might-makes-right. The song tries weakly to integrate itself into the tradition of American ballads about simple folk who take their organic ideals to the market of the modernizing world only to be told those ideals won’t fetch a tarnished penny; that the values they’ve amassed in place of fortune are worthless. But Robbie Robertson, who wrote the song, is at once too smart and too dumb to convey his story in a language that could practice what it’s preaching: a language that’s simple and organic, constructing its values from the materials found on the ground, in the air, and in the mouths of the people it champions. It’s too discursive, too consciously literate. It’s not “I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground.”
What’s more, the song sides with the wrong side. Sure, the song is about what politics do to individuals who don’t have a say in those politics. But Virgil Caine, the song’s protagonist, plays as the embodiment of the old South, of slavery and bigotry and a deadly unwillingness to reevaluate. Old Dixie needed to be driven down. As with recent literature about the victimization of German citizens in World War II, this is a story that doesn’t have a right to be told. The defeats of Dixie and Nazi Germany are two examples of stories that don’t have two sides. The lives of individuals do not exist apart from history. On the contrary, history is nothing but the cumulative effects and actions of those lives. Virgil Caine didn’t have to take “a rebel stand.” He might have joined the underground railroad, he might have been an abolitionist, he might have migrated north, or all the way to Canada. He might’ve become Robbie Robertson’s grandpa. But he didn’t. He fought for the Confederacy and he lost a brother in the war. His story, as told by the song, is a song of the defeated, the disempowered. But it’s not so. The defeated and disempowered in this story are the Africans, forcibly removed from their homes, from their families, from their continent, and enslaved by white people who didn’t want to pay for labor that would cut into their profits. American exceptionalism is built off this will to profit; this despicable willingness to value one’s own financial wealth over another’s simple well-being. Virgil Caine deserved to go down, as did all of Old Dixie. For Robbie Robertson to have denied this is reprehensible. At the very least, Robertson owes his long and comfortable livelihood to a music invented by those who, after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, were slowly repatriated into humanity.
But as played at The Last Waltz, the song seems to be about Levon Helm (the one Southerner in a band of Canadians) being driven down by the end of the Band and by Robbie’s attempts to wrest control of the Band’s artistic legacy away from the other members. When Levon sings “you can’t lift a Caine back up when he’s in defeat,” I hear him singing about the desperate decline that had been initiated by The Last Waltz. The concert, intended as a celebration, possibly as a new beginning, is in fact, a wake, a funeral, a walk to the gallows. Guest after guest testify and deliver their eulogies: Ronnie Hawkins, with whom the Band got their start (as the Hawks), Muddy Waters, Neil Young (“I just wanna say, before I start, that it’s one of the pleasures of my life to be able to be on this stage with these people tonight”), Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Neil Diamond, and finally, Bob Dylan, the man who’d buried everybody. Winterland is decorated like a funeral parlor. The concert ends with “I Shall Be Released,” for god’s sake. The signs couldn’t be clearer. There was nowhere else for The Band to go. The arc of their career as an independent group had been straight down, from the masterpiece of Music From BigPink, to the good enough, self-titled, follow-up, to a string of records each less inspired than the last. Robbie escaped to movie soundtracks and insipid spirituality (when my wife was pregnant, our natural birthing instructor played one of Robbie’s solo albums during a relaxation exercise). But the others were digging their graves. Just ten years later, while on tour, Richard Manuel would hang himself in a Florida motel room, Rick Danko would spend a number of years in a Japanese prison for cocaine possession and then die of a cocaine-aided heart attack in 1999. To his credit, only Levon found a way to reconstruct a rewarding musical life after the Band. But the impending tragedy of their story – nearly Greek in its depths – was already there in his performance at The Last Waltz. He alone knew what he was playing for that night. He alone knew the challenge that lay ahead. How do you descend from the mountaintop and go back to plowing the fields? He sings his plight: “I don’t mind chopping wood/And I don’t care if the moneys no good.” The only way to survive is to chop the wood for chopping wood’s sake, not to care if the money’s no good. Levon’s performance is defiant, sad, triumphant. And the arrangement of this version transforms the song – the passages where tempo and momentum deteriorate, the expansiveness abetted by the horn arrangements (more New Orleans than Memphis) – from a simple ballad to something much less definable, much less containable. Levon can feel the weight of defeat. He knows – after singing it hundreds of times before – that this is the last time he’ll sing this song with these four bandmates. This is the last time he’ll sing it with them, for them, to them, against them (against one of them, at least). He’s got to pack it all into this one performance. He’s got to say everything this song can say all at once. He’s got to say more than this song’s ever said before. And he’s got to stick the landing or the whole song, the whole night, maybe the whole career, will have been for naught.
You can see and hear these realities strike Levon in the second chorus. The camera zooms in subtly on his face as he opens his eyes to see Robbie and Rick in front of him to his right. At the start of the third verse the arrangement inserts a breakdown in which the rhythm dissipates ever so briefly, only to be revived by an equally brief horn figure. Levon delivers the lines that follow, “Like my father before me/I’m a work the land,” with a vehemence that verges on vengeance. This reference to family is a reference to the “us” that opposes and is opposed to “them.” It’s not strictly about biology, but about those who fathered this music into existence – many of whom were there that night to perform. Levon is working their land. At the same time, you can hear him chastising The Band – most of all, Robbie, and maybe a little bit, himself – for deciding to leave that land behind. Robbie has the city in his sights. But Levon’s devotion is too deep, his commitment too fundamental. He will be utterly convincing in an unlikely role in Coal Miner’s Daughter, playing the Kentucky coal miner of the title, father of country singer, Loretta Lynn. And he will settle in Woodstock, New York where he will host a series of concerts in his barn, known as “The Midnight Rambles.” These shows doubled as potluck dinners in which audience members brought homemade food to share while they enjoyed Levon and a revolving cast of friends and guests playing American music the way it was presented before the Beatles-ification of rock and roll. Levon alone stayed behind, tending the land, avoiding the disintegration that would claim two of his brothers, while also refusing to run for cover.
The performance of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” that night in 1976 is a statement and a scrapbook. When Levon sings, “In the winter of ‘65/ We were hungry, just barely alive,” he’s not only singing about 1865, but also about 1965. That winter, having split with Ronnie Hawkins, they were just Levon and The Hawks, playing dives and juke joints. Literally and figuratively, they were hungry. In the film of The Last Waltz, Rick Danko talks about ducking out of the local grocery store with bologna in their pockets. But six months later, they’d be on the road with Dylan, suddenly the most important backing band in the world. Eleven years later, at The Last Waltz, Levon would sing them down: Garth, and Rick and Richard and Robbie. He would sing them down into the ground; into an afterlife that could never live up to the paradise of their days on earth.