Saturday, April 21, 2012



By Doc Lawrence

WOODSTOCK, NY—Sitting on a stool with his Bill Monroe-inspired mandolin, he was about to play the dramatic instrumental introduction to Bruce Springsteen’s epic, “Atlantic City,” a song he delivered masterfully, incorporating the strongest elements of Rock, Country, Rhythm and Blues, Bluegrass and French-Canadian music styles. Levon Helm, a genuine grassroots voice of the rural South, returned to the universe that produced him, his immortal soul flying away.

Much like his friend Johnny Cash, Helm enjoyed stardom, then receded into shadows only to remerge supremely triumphant in his final years. Three Grammys, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a 2011 performance in the Ryman Auditorium, Nashville’s sacred shrine of music, where “Ramble at the Ryman” was performed are just a few examples. Brother Love, the irrepressible Nashville wheeler-dealer, was there for the historic session: “It was a night made for street preachers, hookers, rabbit tobacco, sorghum syrup, hominy grits and moonshine. On that stage, Levon blended the Old South with New America, seamlessly crossing all barriers. I don’t think anyone else in music can do that.”

But it will always be “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” that keeps Levon Helm’s mournful voice in that special part of my being where the funeral hymns of my mother, grandparents and Confederate ancestors (not far removed) resonate: “Rock of Ages,” “I’ll Fly Away,” and “Precious Lord, Take my Hand.”  Levon became Virgil Cain, a Southern man who lost everything. Few have fallen into the abyss of war and the horrors of killing, defeat, humiliation and starvation. Levon Helm connected me with those spirits. He wailed and my soul ached.

The South is America’s Ireland. The accents, traditional dances, incredible food and folk art soon will be absorbed and homogenized by popular culture and this country will lose some critical mass. Levon Helm may not have been the last voice of the South, but he was one of the few who could make the claim. A verse from “Atlantic City” hints that beyond despair and misfortune, noble spirits and universal truths linger. You can feel it in the breeze late at night.

“Now our luck may have died and our love may be cold
But with you forever I’ll stay
We’re going out where the sands turnin’ to gold
Put on your stockins baby, ‘cause the nights getting cold
And maybe everything dies, baby, that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.”

1 comment:

  1. I have the Johnny Cash and the Tanya Tucker version of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" but have not heard the Levon Helms one. I'll look for it. It brings me back to my Confederate roots also. I have been working and researching my new book so much lately I feel I have moved back to that time in my own mind.