A lip-smacking, knuckle-dragging hoot, “Jemima Surrender” won’t win any awards for cosmopolitan thinking, but it couldn’t be more fun. From Levon Helm’s tongue-wagging double entendre to Richard Manuel’s gloriously off-kilter drumming, this song unfolds like a boozy roadhouse encore.
Helm always had a kind of carnal joy on the microphone, and that’s perhaps nowhere more true than on this second side-opening cut. He’s in a randy mood, of course, but not just for anybody. This is a song about wanting one woman, and very badly. Yet Helm, even in this moment of outsized sexual frustration, winks his way all the way to the boudoir. Ultimately, that’s in keeping with both this album’s ageless sensibility and its party atmosphere.
Robbie Robertson, who receives a songwriting co-credit with Helm, offers a series of knifing riffs — highlighted by his fizzy retort after the lyrics “I’ll bring over my Fender, and I’ll play all night for you” — even as Garth Hudson contributes these patently brilliant, saloon-shaking runs on piano. Meanwhile, Rick Danko, always such a sympathetic background vocalist, gives the song’s cocky boasts a memorably lonesome counterweight.
That’s as close as the rollicking “Jemima” ever gets to the taut emotional plangency of the preceding “Whispering Pines,” though. This track sounds as free wheeling as it does old, as timeless as it is off the cuff — thanks, in no small way, to an all-akimbo turn at the traps from Manuel. “The thing about it was, Richard was an incredible drummer,” Helm said in his autobiography This Wheel’s on Fire. “He played loosey-goosey, a little behind the beat, and it really swung.”
Manuel had first begun playing while the group worked with Bob Dylan on The Basement Tapes in Helm’s absence: “Without any training, he’d do these hard left-handed moves and piano-wise licks, priceless shit — very unusual,” Helm added. “So I was coming back into a situation where I heard what Richard was accomplishing and had to say, ‘Hell, Richard plays drums better than me on this one. We better leave it that way.’ That’s how we got two drummers in the band.”
This embarrassment of riches ultimately gave Helm a chance to make his way up to the front of the stage, and to rediscover his passion for the mandolin. Helm would bring the same expressiveness that made his drumming so unforgettably emotional to his tough little stringed contributions on Band offerings like “Rag Mama Rag,” “Evangeline,” “When I Paint My Masterpiece” and “Atlantic City” over the years.
With “Jemima Surrender,” Helm was even known to strap on an electric guitar — but its his vocal turn that will remain with you, long after this good-time ride has ended. Helm might never have been more grinningly lascivious, and the feeling is simply contagious. The song enters through your tapping toe, shoots up into the bottom of your spine for a quick waggle, then right to the corners of your already smiling mouth.
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.