When I was about twelve years old I was in the living room of my parents’ house when I heard music coming from my sister’s bedroom upstairs. At the time my musical tastes ran the gamut from the Beatles to the Beatles. There were radio songs I liked, of course, and it’s possible that by this time I’d discovered my brother’s scratchy copy of Hot Rocks, the seminal greatest hits album by The Rolling Stones. But having no money of my own with which to buy records, and a general distaste for most of the newer songs that played on the radio (disco was starting to become big), my tastes were very limited.
Which is why I still remember how the music coming from my sister’s bedroom was like a punch to the solar plexus.
Virgil Caine is the name
And I served on the Danville train
‘Til Stoneman’s cavalry came
And tore up the tracks again
In the winter of ’65
We were hungry, just barely alive
By May the tenth, Richmond had fell
It’s a time I remember oh so well
I was absolutely floored. Knocked. Out. Then when the chorus kicked in I ran up the stairs. I had to know what this song was, who was singing it, and I had to know right that minute. It was a song I’d heard before on the radio, but it was years past its time on the Top 40 station I listened to and my memory of the song was a distant one. Hearing it that day I instantly recognized it, and it touched a chord deep inside of me.
My sister showed me the album cover, which struck me as very strange. Five wet, scraggly men standing on a muddy road, and on the back cover a photo that looked like it had been taken in 1876, with a lyric from “The Dark Town Strutter’s Ball.” And was that really the name of the group? The Band? Really? On the inside of the gatefold, more photographs that looked so out of time.
My sister dutifully played some of the songs for me, including “Rag Mama Rag” because I was taking piano lessons at the time and that song had fantastic piano playing in it. At the time, a lot of the album went over my head, but “Rag Mama Rag”, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, and “Up On Cripple Creek” reached into my soul. They’re still there, though by now they’ve been joined by the rest of that extraordinary album, unquestionably one of the greatest of the rock era.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the three songs that resonated so deeply with me were sung by Levon Helm. That raspy, gravelly, yet powerful, voice added so much weight to the songs he sung. This was a man who sang with authenticity. Not pretty, his voice was real. It was the voice of the South, of cotton fields and scorching heat, of the ghosts of rebels long forgotten. Richard Manuel sang like an angel, and Rick Danko sang like a fallen angel, but Helm was the voice of the soil, never even trying to hide that Arkansas twang. So strong was his presence that it is sometimes forgotten that he was the sole American in a rock band that virtually invented Americana. A Canadian wrote the Civil War song “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” but he relied on the American in the band to bring the song to life, to invest in the words a dignity and pride in the enormous heritage of the Old South. It was a new voice for most rock listeners in 1969. It was not the yokel voices of the old-fashioned country singers, nor the voice of the slack-jawed redneck caricature in which so many non-Southerners believed. It was the voice of pride, not in slavery, but in sticking up for beliefs. It was the voice of defeat, and carried an unheard acknowledgment that defeat may have been necessary. It was stately and grand, overflowing with gravitas. It was the voice of Levon Helm, who gave the song a seriousness that neither Richard Manuel nor Rick Danko could approach. And the fact that this same voice could be turned to rip-roaring, rafter-swinging effect in joyful, bawdy, life-affirming songs like “Rag Mama Rag” and “Cripple Creek” only made Helm that much more valuable to both his band and rock music in general.
Recently I’ve been listening to Helm’s solo album Electric Dirt (review to follow in the April Listening Post). His voice on the 2009 album is not as strong as it once was, but considering that it was once believed he would never sing again after he was diagnosed with throat cancer in the late-90s, it is remarkable how good he sounds. The album itself is a fine one, full of the fire and vigor of a man half his age with none of his health problems. To see him do these songs in one of the Midnight Rambles he staged in his barn would have been amazing. I’ll always regret not going to one of the Rambles.
Levon Helm has died, joining his Band-mates and fellow singers Richard Manuel and Rick Danko. One of the greatest rock and roll singers of all time is silent now, but the music he left behind tells his tale.
Listen to it.