Apr 12

The Band: “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (R.I.P., Levon Helm)


Levon Helm (second from the left), 1940-2012

I’m pre-empting Cover Friday this week, due, sadly, to the need for a second consecutive “in memoriam” post. This time it’s for the passing of Levon Helm, a key member of The Band; he died yesterday at the age of 71 after a battle with cancer.

Never was a rock band more appropriately named than The Band. Which might sound odd, because it seems like such a generic name, but it’s truly fitting: having honed their talents as Bob Dylan’s backing band, every member of The Band was on an equal par. With the exception of Garth Hudson, whose keyboards instead were so integral to their sound, they all took turns on vocals, and although Robbie Robertson wrote a significant portion of their songs, no one member stood out as being any more important than the others. They brought a true sense of teamwork to rock in a way that few, if any, other bands ever did.

Despite that, among the defining elements of The Band’s sound were the vocals of drummer Levon Helm (and it goes without saying that his drumming was integral as well; his solid, always on-the-mark but never overly flashy drumming fit the songs like a glove). His craggy Southern singing voice lent an air of authenticity to their music, and nowhere was that more appropriate than on their classic, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” from their second album, 1969’s The Band. It’s the story of the suffering of the Confederate South at the end of the Civil War, and by god, it sounds like it was written and sung mere weeks after the events actually occurred. Rarely has a modern song sounded so much like a relic from a bygone era, and when Helm sang it, he sounded for all the world as though he were a Civil War vet himself. It’s a magnificent piece of songwriting by Robertson, but it was Helm that allowed it to reach its full potential.

Levon Helm was one of the greats of the ’60s; he may be gone, but thankfully his work in The Band will always remain to inspire future generations of musicians.

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