Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" / The Band

I'm getting psyched -- tomorrow night I'm going to the taping of a segment of Elvis Costello's interview show Spectacle. The guest line-up is pretty amazing (more on that tomorrow), but just for starters, I'm eager to see Levon Helm.

I'll admit, I was only a casual fan of The Band. I ignored them for years -- the Dylan connection, the country-tinged American sound, the fact that my older brother loved them -- all worked against them for me. But while I was living in England, I became obsessed with the movie Mean Streets, so naturally I went to see The Last Waltz when it came out in 1978 (I'd just moved back to the States and was living in Washington DC). I was captivated by The Band, especially Rick Danko, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Robert DeNiro in Mean Streets. Seeing Levon Helm's poignant performance in Coal Miner's Daughter a year or so later sealed the deal for me. My DC roommate had a couple of The Band's LPs, and I borrowed them so often, she eventually gave them to me.

This video link from The Last Waltz brings it back all over again. Unfortunately, I'd fallen for a band that had already broken up -- story of my life -- and my attraction never grew into full-fledged fangirl-dom. These days, I rarely think of listening on purpose to a Band track. But like a lot of familiar songs that you half-listen to, floating around you in the background soundtrack, every once in awhile I find myself paying attention to one of their songs, and I remember all over again what a great band this was.

My favorite Band songs tend to be the ones where Levon Helms sings lead; I just love his honey-edged crooning wail. True, the Americana quality of this song is a little trumped-up -- it's a fake Civil War ballad, and practically a history term paper, studded with general's names and battle places. Still, there's something momentous about that first line as Levon announces, "Virgil Caine is my name" -- even if the name was probably chosen just for the closing pun, "You can't raise a Caine back up when he's in defeat."

For years I assumed that the event this song celebrates -- the "night" of the title -- was some pivotal battle, a turning point of the war, "the night the South was lost." But recently it hit me that it's really set just after the war, when Virgil, our Confederate veteran, is watching the funeral cortege of Robert E. Lee, the embodiment of Old Dixie. Somehow that makes it more wistful and less woeful; it's an outsider's song, sung by a rebel who's been forced underground (the South will rise again!).

It should be a downer, yet you can't beat that singalong chorus, erupting into full harmonies: "The night they drove Old Dixie down, and the bells were ringing, / The night they drove Old Dixie down, and the people were singin'. / They went, La, La, La, La, La, La, La, La, La, La, La, La, La, La..." The old-timey piano flourishes, Levon's military-style snare-drum rolls, make it feel authentic, like one of those old Matthew Brady phtographs. Its loping rhythms lurch along like a ragtag soldier limping home. The funny thing is, Levon was the only true son of the south in this band; the rest are all Canadians. But they sure fooled me with this song.


J-Money said...

Holy. Crap.

Holy crap.

YOU WERE THERE for the Costello taping with Levon Helm AND Richard Thompson AND NICK LOWE?

Jealous, jealous, jealous. I hope you didn't OD on awesome.

wwolfe said...

Many years ago, when I first read Dave Marsh's essay on the Band in which he argued that Levon's was the group's true voice, it was a shock. Robbie Robertson had been promoted by everyone (especially Robbie) as the true auteur of the group for so long that I just accepted it as fact without really thinking about it. But the more I considered Marsh's position, the more I agreed with him. As with you, almost all my favorite Band songs are those sung by Levon. Not only that, if you believe Levon's autobiography, the songs themselves - at least in the early years - were really collaborative efforts by the entire group, rather than being solely the work of Robertson. When their manager, Albert Grossman finagled the writing credits so that Robertson would receive sole credit, the rest of the band stopped pitching in on the songwriting after the second album. I tend to believe this, since it explains the precipitous drop in song quality that occurred at exactly that moment in the group's career. The final proof, for me, that it was Levon's group came with the release of "Jericho," their first post-Robbie album. I find this album to be superior to all other band albums save "The Band" and "The Basement Tapes," each of which are better, and "Music From Big Pink," which is roughly equal. I'd put Levon's rendition of Springsteen's "Atlantic City" off the "Jericho" album at the top of the group's work, alongside "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "The Weight," and "Ain't No More Cane." "Blind Willie McTell" is awfully good, too. I guess a shorter, simpler way to put this is: for me, the Band was always Levon and the Hawks. (The latter was a cooler name, anyway, come to think of it.)

Holly A Hughes said...

Well, of course I OD'd on awesome!

Wwolfe, I love your analysis. It's telling that Robbie comes off as such a poseur in The Last Waltz, even though he had been Scorsese's Hollywood drug buddy, from what I've read. I guess the Band had to make a big deal about their break-up to get rid of Robbie.

During the taping, Elvis asked Allen Toussaint when was the last time he'd played the Apollo, and AT said "1957." When Levon came out EC asked him the same question, and Levon replied, "1959" -- when he was there with Ronnie and the Hawks. That's 50 years ago! Incredible.

Mark said...

wwolfe, I haven't heard that before about the songwriting, that would certainly explain why the quality of their songs definitely took a nosedive around the same time. (And it explains why suddenly Robbie had to write all the songs.)

This is such a great song, I heard Joan Baez's version on the radio today, and it got me thinking, is it Robert E. Lee's funeral procession, or him marching home in defeat? I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who thinks it might be his funeral procession. What a great song, and a Canadian wrote it! Levon's vocal does sell the song. (I like Rick Danko's voice too, he's tough to distinguish from Richard Manuel, though.)

Anonymous said...

However good Levon was singing the songs - Robbie was the lyricist and wrote almost ALL their music.

Holly A Hughes said...

With the Band, I don't think it's the quality of the songs themselves so much as the amazing musicianship -- an incredible rhythm section, and all those extra instruments, creating such a dense texture of music. I'm trying to think of any Band covers I know that come up to the quality of the originals, and I'm drawing a blank...

Anonymous said...

Love Levi and I believe he lives in Woodstock now.

But the late Rick Danko was no small part of this mob either, although he always seems to get lost in the Robertson/Helm conversations. He is underrated and steals the brass ring in poignancy even over the honey throated Staples as he sings just a few lines in "The Weight," in Scorses' film when he begs another drifter to take care of an old friend, a dog (as he apparently no longer has the means to do so) and "feed him whenever he can."
Achingly beautiful.