Beyond the Great Divide: Goodbye to Levon Helm
The news coverage of Levon’s Helm’s death last week has been overwhelming – but not just the coverage. The online community responses of commentary, the continuous Facebook posts on those musicians’ pages who have been influenced by Levon were a constant stream of reminders of Levon’s musical and mythic legacy. Wilco, alone, posted notes for nearly 24 hours after Levon’s passing – as though to remind us that they wouldn’t be here without The Band – without Levon’s voice, his backbeat and his stories of an America that we all believed existed in some sepia photograph 100 years ago, but deeply hoped might possibly exist yet again one day. Possible in reality: maybe. Possible in our music, memories and folktales: most definitely.
Nearly 10 years ago to the day that brother Levon left us for the great beyond, I had handed in my undergraduate senior thesis in American Studies; it was called, “The Band: Pioneers of American Mythology.” The greatest gift of writing that thesis was the adventure that it led me on – from blues clubs in Manhattan to barns in Woodstock, and the great folklore that lay in the in-between. This all took place amid our country’s endless unknown of tomorrows that were left in the wake of September 11, 2001, which had occurred just a month into my writing process. America often suffers from cases of cultural and historical amnesia, and I am no exception. I must force myself to remember those dark and difficult days – days of silent airspace; not knowing if there was another catastrophic attack meticulously planned for the moment that the dust started to settle; knowing deep down that this was only the beginning of a battle not soon to be forgotten.
It was with that reality that I woke up every morning and turned on The Band and wrote – that I packed up my car and went exploring and researching in small wooden houses down winding dirt roads in Woodstock on weekends, and that I listened to the life stories of an Arkansas cotton farmer’s son. That was Levon, of course. He was exactly who he was when I asked to interview him: a gracious, humble, gentleman whose enthusiasm and hospitality went far beyond an interview. I was young then, much younger than I am now, but I remember thinking when I first met Levon in the basement of a smoky blues club, that I could have been a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine – I could have been the President of the United States – and he still would have approached me with a genuine interest, and a happiness to meet yet another character in this unlikely life tale of his.
He welcomed me into his world – a world of characters and stories from his past and present, and encouraged me to simply tell a story without over-intellectualizing The Band. And, so I just listened at first and then let the lyrics guide my story of The Band. During a time when I so desperately needed to – on some level – protect myself from a deeply bruised and heartbroken America and, yet find inspiration and resilience in this hardship, I entered into The Band’s world. This was a lyrical world in which the people, the culture and the country lived with a sense of humble simplicity. It was a time and place that looked at hardship with a sense of matter-of-fact anticipation and then accepted it, put its head back to the ground, and got back to work rebuilding in the face of adversity, with faith in eventual deliverance. I felt then that there was a sense of pride and honor in this world – and there was strength and lessons that I could draw from that in a way that no academic journal or lecture could have ever taught me.
Who knows if this America ever really existed – or if it ever really will – but the story of the farmer begging with the union man, the bank and ultimately, with mother nature, in “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” or Virgil Caine, beaten and broken, and knowing that against all faith, it was simply not in his blood to rise again, led me to understand dignity and morality amid the saddest moments of our history, and yet laid out a roadmap, of sorts, for how to pick myself up and rebuild. That was the beauty of The Band for me, in that rare moment of time: I not only journeyed through that “lost,” mythic America, which presumably made The Band so enigmatically attractive to the counter-counter culture in the late 1960s, but they painted pain, destruction and heartbreak in the most personal of ways – ways that robbed families of their children, of their land and of their livelihood, and yet, they found a way through. One spin through a Band album, and I felt connected to a country and a culture of great resilience; I hoped beyond all hope that we’d be OK again one day, because, in our deepest moments of despair, Americans knew how to pull ourselves together, rebuild and start all over again. So, that was how I medicated myself during the dark hours of September 11.
Here we are, a bit more than 10 years later. After finishing that thesis, graduating college, moving into the working world and starting new careers, while holding onto old passions, I put The Band on hold. The memories were strong. I had come to my love affair with The Band at 16 years old and had left them with complicated and emotional associations of a time and place in my life – in the country’s life. I needed a break, hoping that one-day, I could listen again to “Unfaithful Servant,” without feeling heartache for countless Americans – past and present.
From time to time, over the last 10 years, I’d hear The Band on the radio and I’d think nostalgically of that oddly innocent period of my life, when I was sure in the moment that all innocence had been shattered, but only in time, realized that it hadn’t been. Isn’t that the tricky thing about innocence: you either don’t realize your youthful freedom until it quickly starts slipping away or you’ve so reconstructed its memory, that it’s hard to remember if there was truly a time of pure innocence or if you’ve woven a nostalgic web of a perceived simpler time for yourself? For years, I could not sit and listen to The Band; I mourned for a forgotten time of my life and I mourned for the memories – both lovely and tragic – that were tied to it.
And, then, last week, I felt a near divine pull to put on “Music from Big Pink,” one night on my evening subway commute. Only weeks earlier, I had made the decision to leave New York City for New Mexico – to get back to the land a bit, to live a different lifestyle and to enjoy the “country” country. In many ways, it makes perfect sense that I was yearning for The Band in such a significant way: I was looking for that long dusted over, but never forgotten, soundtrack to my ever-evolving journey with our country. It was only appropriate that I would turn to my old friends for comfort, and more importantly, to share in the excitement of the unknown that lay ahead on the New Mexico frontier. So, that night, I pulled up Youtube to watch some old live footage of The Band, and learned that only two hours earlier, Levon’s wife and daughter had posted the note that Levon’s fight with cancer was coming to an end. I couldn’t stop watching videos and pulled up my iTunes, alternating between videos and audio – for hours. I read the comments; I emailed friends; I listened to The Band for hours on end, like I never had stopped, and this time, I heard The Band again as I had as a 16 year old. I heard them only as a group of displaced Civil War soldiers trapped in another era, sharing their stories as they would around a campfire or on a back porch. Somewhere in the last 10 years, I had shed the memories of a frightened America – and of personal fear – and came back to the music and the stories that the music told.
And then, something interesting happened. I began to listen to Levon’s new classics – “Dirt Farmer,” “Electric Dirt,” and “Ramble at the Ryman.” Sure, I knew these albums had come out over the last 10 years – I knew that he had won Grammy awards for all of them, and I had heard the songs from time-to-time, but mostly in the background of something else. I wasn’t distracted now, however. The old hymnals were new again. As though lifting itself from the very sacred ground that his father and grandfather plowed, Levon’s triumphant voice weaves the fabric of “Anna Lee,” “Golden Bird” and “Wide River to Cross.” Larry Campbell’s fiddle moans underneath the melody and the bass drum pounds in a procession, leaving me in a trance, yearning for more, but so grateful for these final recordings. The tales of youth and America that Levon had shared over 30 years ago with that group of Canadian dreamers that were translated so poignantly in Band songs are now his own, and we are left with these Levon Helm treasures, which sound like recordings that Alan Lomax surely must have missed somewhere along his travels.
Is it too much to say that Levon Helm, himself, may belong more in the Smithsonian than he does in the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame? Maybe. But, perhaps not too much to say that one need only to listen to these new albums in the Levon revival to find his way back home – back into his country.