A time I remember oh so well …

19 Apr

Levon during his days with The BandLevon Helm, the drummer and one of the three singers of The Band, passed away after a long, long struggle against throat cancer. I’m taking this news harder than I would have expected. The guy’s voice just made me feel at home.

My first awareness of The Band’s music was through Joan Baez’s version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Even as a six year-old, I thought it was a strange song for a woman to sing. I knew full well she couldn’t be Virgil Caine and she couldn’t be a “working man” like her father. But she was so pretty and she performed it with such sunniness, I loved to sing along – especially since she mentioned Richmond, my home town. Wow, I lived somewhere famous!

A few years later when I heard the original version, my first reaction was that those Band guys turned a great Joan Baez tune into a real downer. My misunderstanding of the meaning of the song continued through high school, where I played clarinet for our school’s Marching Rebel Band.  When our team got a touchdown, we’d play “Dixie” and wave the Stars and Bars. When we lost, we’d sing “Dixie” as a dirge on the long bus ride home, followed by a reverent version of Ms. Baez’s boppy tune.

As they say, ignorance is bliss.

I was born and bred in the Confederate capital city, and the Civil War is Richmond’s place in history. The gigantic statues of Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart and the rest up and down Monument Avenue are immovable symbols of a lost and ignoble cause. I know full well that what we used to coyly call “the War Between the States” was a battle to preserve slavery. Waving the Confederate Flag as a symbol of school pride, as we did every Friday at our football games, was at best naive and at worst, racist.  It’s difficult to think about as an adult because I feel like such an idiot in retrospect.

That’s why I understand the import and feel the impact of The Band’s song so deeply. The art of Robbie Robertson’s lyrics and Levon Helm’s delivery is that it strips the Civil War of its romanticism but not its humanity. Virgil Caine’s story is one of futility and loss: “You can’t raise a Caine back up when he’s in defeat.” Heavy stuff for a hit record; bittersweet, beautiful and necessary for this Southerner to hear.

Rest in peace, Levon, and thank you.

See you on the flip side …


3 Responses to “A time I remember oh so well …”

  1. every record tells a story April 20, 2012 at 2:26 am #

    Beautifully said – thank you. RIP Levon…

  2. susan April 20, 2012 at 9:42 am #

    GREAT song, GREAT band, GREAT singer! He was… The Band.

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