Old Dixie Down
By Brian Arsenault
It’s been a couple of days since I could have written anything about Levon Helm’s passing other than to say, “I’m bummed.” Since the night at my friend Peter’s place when I first heard Music from Big Pink with its melancholy melodies and tunes that seemed rooted in a rural North America of long ago, I have been a fan of The Band.
And though Robbie Robertson was the clear leader and an accomplished guitar player and Garth Hudson was perhaps the group’s most talented musician, Levon somehow always seemed to me to be the true spirit of The Band. I just can’t imagine The Band without his frontier look, rhythmic drumming, and wild eyed singing that was equal parts Southern hill country and Celtic wailing.
Some articles that came out quickly after his death made a great deal about the fact that he was the only “American” member of the band, hailing from Arkansas as I recall, while the other members were “Canadian.” I think that misses the point.
They were all, after all, North Americans. It may be different to grow up in New Jersey than in north Ontario but it’s at least equally different to grow up in Texas or California. From a few hundred years ago forward, some of the same Scotch, Irish and old English folk music made its way into Nova Scotia as well as the hills of West Virginia.
No doubt, though, Helm brought a particularly Southern consciousness to The Band’s music. In Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, surely the best rock concert film and probably the best rock documentary ever made, Martin at one point listens to Levon talk about a youth where blues and country and riverboat show music all came together. Martin asks what came of all that. “Rock ‘n’ roll,” Levon replies.
The greatest musical moment in The Last Waltz is probably when Robbie and Clapton are bouncing lead guitar riffs off each other. But surely a close second is when Levon belts out “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” accompanied by a horn section which marvelously includes a tuba.
So many tunes. Can’t you hear “Ophelia” and “Up On Cripple Creek” in your head. Won’t you always? One of the ironies of The Band to me is that while Dylan was criticized for abandoning folk music when he went “electric,” so much of The Band’s music, especially that composed by Levon, is essentially folk music in nature. If by folk music you mean right out of the lives of regular people.
Throughout The Last Waltz‘s whole magical musical night, with so many great performances, Levon is the one on stage who seems to be smiling all the time. To find the joy in music is to beam that exuberance right out to the audience. Even to the other musicians. What was it Neil Young said when he came out to sing “Helpless”? That being on that stage on that night with those guys was one of the great joys of his life.
Bob Dylan, who first brought The Band to worldwide attention, of course came last in the show, wearing some version of a leopard skin pillbox hat. He sang “Forever Young” and it was touching in a concert by a group playing its last gig. It’s even more touching now that Levon’s gone.
Like I said, I’m bummed.