Levon at the Last Waltz – photo by Larry Hulst
For many of my friends, and I would think a great portion of those born at the tail end of the twentieth century, the idea of America was not yet a very romantic one in our early adolescence. Like many before us, we longed for an organic, unironic, and inspired connection to the country which current events and the increasingly divisive political climate made difficult. Particularly in the suburbs the experience required a reaching after and beckoned us to the dig. But what corner of the American cultural landscape would prove the grounds for excavation? In our circle it was music. And it had to be.
I was fourteen when I heard my first Bob Dylan recordings and something awoke in me. In his songs, and through the characters he gave voice to, there was an awareness of an older tradition; an unpretentious respect for common people, and a conviction that truth could be simple and protected with a voice. The production had rust, the lyrics weight. And slowly a part of that romantic American spirit I had longed to feel began to manifest. This was not merely a respect or false nostalgia for a time period before I was born. This was identification. A feeling so old it felt familiar. Like I had finally discovered a part of me I always there, but had yet to realize how to start the conversation.
It was not long after hearing Dylan for the first time that I was introduced to The Band. Listening to their records I felt a connection to something altogether absent in the music made by many musicians of the nineties and on into the first decade of the twenty-first century. Here was the spirit of the road at the cross section of American culture; offered through the tropes and folk mythos of the blues, country, gospel, and rock n roll. These traditions were seldom, if ever, featured side by side or song for song but melded and performed by The Band as if there were no “genres.” Quite simply, The Band played American Music.
At the heart of this distinctly American and predominately Canadian band was an Arkansan by the name of Levon Helm. Levon’s voice made us sing our own songs with a southern affect, made us regret not having a deeper connection to the south, to its traditions and culture. And while the songs often related Civil War stories, or of weary travelers and forlorn farmers, his drums forced us to dance. The Band’s music reflected an older America, and it was Levon’s voice that distilled that elemental feeling so genuinely rooted in the American experience. His inflection wasn’t in homage to the musicians he loved, nor was it contrived to entail authenticity. It was pure. And when he sang you believed him, and felt those roots taking hold.
In my group of friends a sustained love affair ensued. We listened to The Band on every occasion we could. Anything from the smell of the autumn leaves, to a drive that took us a little bit further into the “country” made us feel closer to the American spirit permeating throughout The Band’s records. Listening to those songs that spirit became our own. We wanted to do things the old ways, in the slow ways; we wanted to travel south, wanted to write country-folk songs with a sound like tilled dirt. We even wanted to find a house that would become our Big Pink (and we tried too, unsuccessfully, on at least one occasion). There was even one summer where I decided to work at an organic farm; I had hoped, naively, that if I got my hands in the ground I might be able to identify with the narrator of “King Harvest.”
Finally, at the crest of our Band craze, we heard about the Midnight Ramble. As Marylanders, most of us college students in the middle of a semester, we knew the drive to Woodstock, NY would take two things we had little of: time and money. But it was not something to be “thought about” it was something to be done. The fact that it was even a possibility to see Levon Helm play at Levon Helm’s house was all we needed to know. Everything else, any possible reason why it would be an inconvenience, or perhaps financially irresponsible, or case of: “I’ve got that test coming up,” all, all fell aside. But to us the Midnight Ramble was more than just another concert, it was a pilgrimage.
I feel blessed to have seen Levon Helm perform on several occasions over the last several years of his life. The two Midnight Rambles I had the privilege to attend were those kinds of experiences that make a young person feel they were born at the right time. As if in some way, being able to hear that music, at that point in my life, everything was adding up. There are not many events in a person’s life that hold that kind of weight, and to have been able to share in the creation of those moments with friends at my side and Levon at the helm, that is something that I will always be thankful for when I hear Levon’s voice.
When I listen back to those timeless recordings, I will remember that time in my life when music gave me a sense of freedom and established the feeling of the American road within my heart, even if I could only make it out on a weekend. It was the time when friends and I began to write our own songs. To play them and believe in them and see them as a continuation of those American traditions we had learned by merely listening. Most importantly it was a time when we were young Americans that had found and been inspired by an American tradition that befit us through a dance.
Thanks for the music Levon,
When you awake you will remember everything.