I know some of you didn’t. I know I didn’t.
What am I talking about? The passing of Levon Helm last week. But that’s not what I mean by what y’all missed. I’m sure many noted his passing.
What you may have missed was one of the most unique voices in rock history as part of a band that was one of the most iconic in rock history. A band that had the audacity to call itself…The Band.
The Band. Simple. Profound.
And very, very talented. Led my Helm on the drums and lead singer, The Band also boasted Robbie Robertson on lead guitar, Rick Danko on bass guitar, Garth Hudson on keyboards and Richard Manuel on just about everything else. This was group that was truly a group – an alchemy. A sum greater that its parts. Individually, they were talented musicians to be sure…but together, they were amazing. They were…The Band. Totally deserving of that simple title.
With the passing of Levon Helm, I was spurred to do a little reminiscing via YouTube of their musical peak, which was the mid-70’s. I watched them perform Up On Cripple Creek and The Weight – two of their most recognizable hits. In both, Helm gave it that soulful, homespun, twangy Arkansas vocal performance that marked his style.
But then I came across a video that I was just mesmerized by. So much so that I played it over and over and over…to the point where the song was just stuck in my head for days –
Virgil Caine is the name and I served on the Danville train…
That song, right there, is why Levon Helm was – and is – a national icon. He took this powerful song about the end of the Civil War and the utter defeat of the Confederate army and wrung every ounce of passion in his body into it. “By May 10th, Richmond had fell....it's a time I remember oh so well....”
And it also shows why The Band was, well, the band.
And it also gave me, as a northerner; pause to reflect on what the south must have gone through when they knew defeat was imminent. The song paints a graphical feel of the time – the army was defeated, they were hungry, tired, and heading back home…but all the bells were ringing and the people were singing.
And what were they singing? “Naaah na na na na na naaaah…Na na na na na na nah”
Almost like a taunt. We won. You lost. Scoreboard. Now go back home while we fill your ears with the sound of your defeat.
And one hundred and ten years after the war ended, Levon Helm and his bandmates totally captured what it must have felt like to have lost that war through the eyes of Tennessee farmer Virgil Caine…and his brother who took a rebel stand until a Yankee laid him in his grave.
Folks, we lost a great voice last week.
Rest in peace, Levon Helm.