A triumph of narrative balance, “When You Awake” features the voice of a small boy in the verse and his grandfather’s response in the chorus. It perhaps could only work within a performance by Rick Danko, whose unique singing style was forged in a time before rock ‘n’ roll had been codified — when black music and white music, when sounds old and new could be combined without genre questions.
These disparate threads intertwined to form not just the framework for Danko’s special gift with a lyric (part blues, part rock, with a twinge of Appalachia — like mountain-man soul) but of popular music itself. And it’s all there, inside his vocal. He finds more than simple emotion, as he climbs to impossible heights, then storms back down with the greatest of ease, but also real insight and no small amount of wit.
Danko, as this often overlooked song on an album filled with career-making moments so clearly shows, was always the most underrated of the Band’s three principal vocalists.
Even as co-writer Robbie Robertson builds the song up from a Merle Travis riff, while fellow co-writer Richard Manuel (this time on drums) and Garth Hudson add a ragtime feel atop it, Danko directs us through the story of a young man who has been bedeviled by the often sharp words of Ollie, who is perhaps a family member, older sibling or friend. Ollie has given the young man the hard line on this world — the warts-and-all version, with difficult truths and dark portents.
That’s sent him to the comfort of his grandfather, who doesn’t so much untangle the child’s worries as provide the comfort of undying love. As with Manuel’s earlier “We Can Talk,” the lyrics here are more about feel than literalism, more about emotion than interpretive detail. It seems to be a song, at least at first, about the joys of home.
Midway through the track, however, Robertson and Manuel shift forward into time — and the boy appears to be all grown up, and reflecting back now. His grandfather, it seems, has passed on, leaving the adult descendent in a contemplative mood about the fates — right up to a fade-out quote from “I Bowed My Head and Cried Holy,” a traditional gospel number.
It’s hard to not find yourself lost in the same rumination as “When You Awake” departs, what with Danko gone now nearly 15 years. It’s hard to believe, but he’d still only be 70 today.
Across the Great Divide is a weekly, song-by-song examination from Something Else! on the legacy of the Band, both together and as solo artists. The series runs on Thursdays.