Over the years, Levon Helm was many things and he cropped up in many places: He was a rock and roll legend with a revitalized career who hosted group jams that anyone could sit in on; he was the abusive coal mining father to Sissy Spacek’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter; he was the down-home southern narrator to the wonderful (and now-forgotten) documentary Elvis ’56; and, of course, he was the drummer and often lead vocalist for the Band.
I found out about the Band the same way that most people in my generation did: From my parents’ vinyl collection. Their self-titled “Brown Album” was the one my parents had, and as a result, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” was the first song of theirs I remember hearing. Which means that, like so many others, my first encounter with the Band was with Levon’s voice. And I don’t think I would’ve wanted it any other way.
“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” was Levon’s song, but as is usually the case with the Band, nothing is quite that simple. A true collaborative group, their best music, found on their first two albums, was written as a team, less like a baseball or football team than a team of great storytellers swapping tales like gamblers in the back of the saloon, trying to outdo each other while still contributing something essential to the whole. There was a lot going on, but none of it ever felt forced or unnecessary. And as the drummer, Levon is the one who anchored it all.
Greil Marcus once famously described the Band as four Canadians held together by an Arkansas drummer, and that hit the nail on the head. The Band had always been Levon's band – he was its senior member and the one who kept it going between their celebrated stints with Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan as Levon and the Hawks – and he was the only one in this archetypal Americana band who was actually American.
And appropriately, it was in the heart of the South, with Levon, that the Band’s story began. Recruited by local B-level rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins as a drummer for his backing band the Hawks, Levon went to Canada with them in the early ’60s, where there was still an audience for authentic rough-and-tumble American rockabilly. Over the months, as Levon’s fellow Hawks quit, gave up, or went back home, they were replaced, one-by-one, by local Canadian boys. Before long, Levon found himself to be the sole yankee, surrounded by guitarist Robbie Robertson, bassist Rick Danko, pianist Richard Manuel, and organist Garth Hudson. Eventually Levon even outlasted Hawkins himself, taking the group back to the states where they played an endless string of clubs, pubs, and dives.
It was at one of these places, the Peppermint Club in New York City, where they first hooked up with Bob Dylan. At the time, Dylan was looking for a band to lead for his first electric tour and the Band was looking to have a set professional gig. It was a match in proverbial rock and roll heaven. That was loud. Very, very loud.
But the ensuing tour proved to be one of the most controversial events of rock and roll history, as audiences often jeered and rejected this new electric incarnation of Dylan. Lines were drawn between the audience and the performers, and the concerts often played out like a war in sound and fury. Levon, for one, grew disenchanted – he said he didn’t play music to get booed – and sat out for most of the tour (including the legendary “Royal Albert Hall” concert where someone shouted “Judas!” to Dylan), literally jumping ship to work on an army boat for a string of months before reconnecting with the group on the other side in the summer and fall of 1967, where they were recording the loose, weird music now known as Dylan and the Band’s “Basement Tapes.”
Everyone took turns playing drums in Levon’s absence, with Manuel doing it the most regularly. Levon always maintained that Manuel was the better drummer anyway, and when he rejoined, he initially only contributed mandolin. But as their basement recordings found their way out onto bootleg records and demo tapes for other artists, the Band’s reputation grew in stature, and they were able to land a lucrative deal with Capitol Records, releasing their first two albums, Music from the Big Pink and the self-titled “Brown Album,” in 1968 and 1969.
They were among the finest and most influential records in rock and roll history. In retrospect, the Band mark the point at which the passing whims of current rock fads – “British invasion rock,” “folk rock,” “psychedelic rock,” and the rest – give way to what we now think of as “classic rock,” a rootsy, back-to-basics organic sound that the Band pioneered. Music from the Big Pink was released on July 1, 1968; by December, the Rolling Stones had officially abandoned their psychedelic misadventure with the back-to-basics Beggars Banquet, which featured gritty hits like “Street Fighting Man” and “Sympathy for the Devil,” while the Beatles planned their grand back-to-basics project, which became the Let It Be album and film, early the following year. George Harrison sang the Band’s praises and envied their teamwork, while Eric Clapton left Cream upon hearing the Band, secretly wishing they would ask him to join them when he first met them.
By abandoning pretentions and consciously shunning any modern passing fancies, the Band paradoxically found themselves at the center of all that was hip and innovative in rock and roll. Not that they had the chart hits to go along with it. Music from the Big Pink only hit #30 on the album charts while its accompanying single, “The Weight,” only made #63, perhaps putting them behind only the Velvet Underground for the decade’s most influential music that translated to the least amount of popular sales. But when they got ready to release their next album, it was seen as enough of an event that they were featured on the cover of Time Magazine.
And to my ears, that sophomore album, The Band, is their masterpiece. It plays like a rock and roll version of the Great American Novel, an utterly timeless, seemingly all-encompassing signature achievement.
The album has pop and rock, blues and country, high-mountain yodeling and middle-of-the-ocean sea-shanties, and down-home rag music, like “Rag Mama Rag,” which Levon doesn’t so much sing as he does unleash a nineteenth-century equivalent of a wall of sound, voices shouting, violins searing, pianos banging, drums collapsing upon themselves, and a tuba churning underneath it all, as one pictures whatever the wagon train pioneers did at night in the place of a rave.
The album has guitars and fiddles, pianos and organs, drums and horns, and what sounds like a giant radioactive Jew harp (actually Hudson’s organ run through a wah-wah pedal), which churns under “Up on Cripple Creek,” at #25 the biggest hit the Band would ever have, sung with gleeful abandon by Levon, as he adds his natural charm to a tall-tale of love caught on the sly, until it becomes the Band’s funkiest – and sexiest – song. It also is the rare song that both alludes to other music (seven perfect words: “We had Spike Jones on the box”) and is alluded to in other music (The Beastie Boys’ lifting “I bet on one horse to win, and another to show” for their Paul’s Boutique), which of course only strengthens the chain on either side, as well as within itself.
The album has songs about old men and part-time lovers, unfaithful servants and union members, women hiding guns and men who are thieves (and dig it), wild storm warnings and lonesome pines, and transcending it all is Virgil Caine, a Confederate Army veteran who loves the land he was born on and has seen it at its best and at its worst, and sings short lines that encompass long passages of time, until he becomes noble, or like a ghost with nothing left to do but tell his story to himself, which is to say, to anyone listening, to us.
It is Levon’s – and arguably the Band’s – finest performance. Robertson had written “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” for Levon, tapping into Levon’s knowledge about the sights, sounds, and feelings of the Civil War and spinning them into lyrics that resonate like few other depictions of the event. “In the winter of ’65,” Levon sings at one point, not so much destitute as he is merely reciting facts that have long since dulled his saga until they feel blank, “We were hungry, just barely alive.”
As he sung it, I wonder if Levon didn’t think back to the winter of 1965, when he had freshly left Dylan and the Band to strike out on his own on the army boat, and how lonesome he may have felt without his musical comrades around him; he certainly found his way back all right. I also wonder how many other people listening to the song in 1969 assumed it was referring the winter of 1965, and thought back to their own recent past, which, only four years later, must have seemed quite distant in its own right.
But make no mistake, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is about 1865, and the fall of the South in the Civil War, and America, and so much more. It’s said that our modern-day interpretation of the Civil War as a “brother against brother” conflict is a fairytale we tell ourselves because it was actually a failed second revolution to free the slaves, which imploded in the Reconstruction era, a time that we’d much rather skip over altogether than even bother to make up a fairytale about. African American slaves got their freedom, but at what cost? The sharecropping system and our country’s sense of integrity. Is it any wonder we’d rather think about a strapping white guy with a mustache dressed in blue shaking hands with a strapping white guy with a mustache dressed in gray?
As a cultural artifact, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is near bottomless. It demonstrates the “brother against brother” myth by taking the perspective of a southerner to elicit northern sympathy (as was done in countless Civil War artifacts, from – yikes! – Birth of a Nation on down through The General and Gone With the Wind), for, by tapping into that quiet sense of forlornness, it allows the northerner to put themselves into the southerner’s boots and understand their pain, if only for a moment, because as their once and future countryman, only they can truly know it. Just as we can only hate someone that we once loved, so too can we only love someone that we once hated.
In this way, every gesture in the song, no matter how small, becomes enormous. A yankee lays Virgil’s brother in his grave; Virgil’s wife calls for him to come quick and watch Robert E. Lee go by; Virgil is reduced to hunger and chopping wood with worthless confederate bills in his pocket. Each moment in the song is entirely imagined and yet entirely real, an idea about a time trapped in a time, a color picture of a black-and-white photograph.
And holding it all together from both ends is, of course, Levon: His vocals are what imbue the song with such richness, his drumming is what turns it from a march to a funeral to a wistful sing-a-long in a matter of seconds. Levon always liked hunting through old instrument shops when working on an album, and just before recording The Band, he stumbled upon an old wooden drumset that he purchased and used on the record. I suppose they were used on the entire album, but I feel like I can most clearly hear them on “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” It makes sense that these wooden drums that hold the beat because the music sounds so rustic, so sturdy, like it was made out of old hickory like Andy Jackson.
And with his smooth drawl and his mischievous grin, Levon Helm was the perfect person to sit behind them and tell the tale that he never lived but somehow always knew.