The Band, “King Harvest” from The Band (1969): Across the Great Divide

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“King Harvest,” the unforgettably sad tale of a besieged farmer, begins not with a scene-setting declaration, but with a quiet sense of forboding — one that returns for its out-of-time chorus, a last, utterly brilliant feint from a group that, to this point, seemed to know no rules.

By the time our narrator — driven to the edge of foreclosure by dry spells and bad luck — makes a statement of solidarity with the union, “King Harvest” has (in the tradition of the very best Robbie Robertson storylines) already turned every expectation on its head. Lead vocalist Richard Manuel, who’s joined by Levon Helm for those purple-clouded choruses, spends the rest of “King Harvest” explaining away the decision — even as he resigns himself to the next mishap, be that weather or otherwise.

In an age of florid psychedelia, nothing about this song fit the norm: “I could relate to farmers in the Depression getting together in unions better than I could relate to going to San Francisco and putting flowers in your hair,” Robertson once said. “People hear about the present every day; they see it on TV all day long. To write songs about that seems to me a waste of time. So, the way I get the most effect out of something is to come in from another door.”

Manuel approaches the lyric with a desolate grief, becoming the very embodiment of someone trying to make the right call, to divine just where to go, and knowing that any misstep could spell certain doom for his farm and for his family. And the music, as complex as it is perfectly attenuated, both echoes and amplifies the grower’s terrifying predicament.

Listen to Helm’s rustle on the cymbals, like the winds of change as they rush across the empty fields. Later, his stick comes down with the force of a sudden exclamation point, signalling an end as final as the inexorable shifting of seasons. All the rest of the Band does is put together perhaps their most completely realized single performance ever: Rick Danko performs with a jazzman’s sense of space on the bass, Garth Hudson is by turns atmospheric and then chuggling at the organ, and Robertson offers what remains his best conceived guitar solo.

Together, they push back, they let things go, they pull in close — moving with what can only be called a collaborative wonder as Manuel voices this bruising tale of Grapes of Wrath-style economic desperation. I must have heard this song a thousand times, maybe more, and it never ceases to amaze. In some ways, it seems to encompass everything that makes the Band such an ineffably unique thing, such a rich source of lasting mystery, of musical ambition and of frank emotion.

Helm, writing in This Wheel’s On Fire, summed up the place that “King Harvest” occupies — both as the closing song for The Band, and within their larger discography: “It was like: There, that’s the Band.”

Unfortunately, it would not hold.

Robertson has said that the Band considered calling this album Harvest — and as “the crowning fruition of a career that had spanned almost a decade” (to borrow Greil Marcus’ phrase in Mystery Train) that title certainly rings true. If the Band never put out anything as consistently brilliant, as sweepingly influential, as complex and yet of a piece as it did over the span of Music from Big Pink and The Band, it wasn’t because they’d used up so much energy in getting started. These initial two albums were, in fact, the culmination of a lengthy journey.

Things would get rockier, and a whole lot stranger, just around the bend: “As we went out into the world — left our mountain hideaway — the unit that we had been all those years,” Robertson mused, “started to break apart.”

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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