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Remembering Levon Helm
April 20, 2012 - Zach Baker
Robbie Robertson wrote the song, and Joan Baez had a hit with the song.
But it's Levon Helm who made the song.
"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" is one of those songs that has to be listened to several times to appreciate. The story, as told by the character Virgil Cane, was historical fiction in a rock and roll song. It first appeared on The Band's self-titled second album, and sounds like it could have been a song written 100 years before it was.
Robertson deserves credit for the post civil war narrative, but it's hard to imagine how the song would have sounded had Helm, in his distinctive Arkansas drawl, not performed it.
Helm was the lone American in The Band. Robertson and the other members --Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson -- were all Canadians. Helm made the song sound as though it really was Reconstruction with a tune.
The recording on the album is strong, but to really appreciate the song, you have to watch the performance in the Martin Scorcese film "The Last Waltz." The Band essentially was breaking up, and the movie documented a performance the group gave in San Francisco on Thanksgiving in 1976. The Band was joined that night by several other stars, including Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell and Dr. John. But the high point may have been Helm's vocal on "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," as he played the drums. Helm's soulful, moving, rendition summed up not only the film, but the song perfectly. I watched the performance earlier today. I've seen it about 100 times and it still gives me chills.
Some 31 years after that performance, Helm released a solo album. He had battled cancer, and at one point even indicated he wouldn't be able to sing anymore. I have a memory of an interview where he said he didn't like his voice that much anyway. I thought that was crazy, since to me it was one of the best voices in rock.
For Christmas in 2007, my best friend Vivek got me "Dirt Farmer," Helm's solo album. Knowing that Helm had been sick and was well into his 60s, I wasn't sure what to expect.
I put the CD in. The first song was "False Hearted Lover Blues."
It was stunning. Helm performed the track with the same enthusiasm he had provided Band recordings 35 years earlier. The album was an absolute gem, as Helm brought new life into a number of old folk songs.
Believing that he had beaten cancer, I waited for more recordings.
Helm died Thursday. But his music, his legacy, his soul will always be there. He's gone, but as long as we listen to music, he'll always be around.
We should be grateful for that.