Across the Great Divide: Levon Helm, “Kingfish” from Electric Dirt (2009)

This absurdly fun street parade of song finds Levon Helm winking and growling through a darkly humorous lyric about the galvanizing rule of Huey Long in Depression-era Louisiana.

“Kingfish,” from 2009’s Dirt Farmer, remains as evocative of what once made the Band great — from Helm’s unfettered interpretation to the bawdy Allen Toussaint score — as anything the individual group members ever put out. It is, quite simply, a song they should have done together while still at the peak of their considerable powers.

Still, by this point in his wildly celebrated but far-too-brief comeback, Helm had put together a band that played with a similarly primal verve. Guitarist Larry Campbell, bassist Byron Isaacs, pianist Brian Mitchell, and a brass section led by trumpeter Steve Bernstein help create a boisterous, giddily salacious atmosphere — one that adds a loose complexity to Randy Newman’s original solo-piano take on 1974’s Good Old Boys.

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Then, there’s Toussaint, the New Orleans-based R&B svengali. That the long-time Band collaborator was there, too, adding horn arrangements for “Kingfish” as well as this album’s touching finale “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free,” seemed fitting.

If the rest of Helm’s Band mates couldn’t be there, a musical — and, perhaps, emotional — circle could still be made.

After all, Toussaint had previously worked with on the Helm-sung “Life is a Carnival” from the Band’s 1971 album Cahoots, and had scored the brass for both their Academy of Music and Last Waltz concerts. The Band covered Toussaint’s “Holy Cow” on 1973’s Moondog Matinee and his “You See Me” on 1998’s Jubilation. Helm also did a version of “Working in the Coalmine,” a Toussaint song that Lee Dorsey hit with, during the sessions for 1980’s American Son. That track would appear as the b-side to his single “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”

Toussaint, in an exclusive SER Sitdown, recounts the steps that led to these remarkable studio sessions — which, sadly, became the cancer-stricken Helm’s last.

“Robbie Robertson got in touch with me first to do the horns for a single, ‘Life is a Carvival,'” Toussaint tells us. “He thought that I would be the one to do a horn arrangement that would be fitting. He got in touch with me in New Orleans, and I met him in New York — at the Gramercy Park Hotel, in fact. I did the arrangement on that song, and that was the first time. Much later, when the Rock of Ages concert came along, again he tried to get in touch with me. But he had lost contact, so he called the sheriff’s department here in New Orleans (laughs) and he had them find me! I thought: ‘Well, this was quite an interesting moment.’ He sat me down with the songs, and I gladly accepted right away — and you know all the rest. With Levon, actually, they sent me a couple of tracks that they had done. I did those horn parts from afar. I didn’t go into the studio with them. But I loved Levon Helm’s stuff.”

Helm had, of course, made his triumphal return in 2007 with Dirt Farmer, an album that was primal, spiritual and, with its bare-knuckled tales of work and struggle and loss, joltingly frank — like a first-draft version of the Band’s more mysterious, more darkly mythical constructions, stripped bare to two-by-fours and a hard concrete foundation.

“Kingfish,” on the other hand, underscores another side of the Band’s legacy, and of Levon Helm’s — that of the randy ne-er-do-well, the smart-ass scamp. (Think tongue-wagging moments like “Rag Mama Rag” or “Get Up, Jake.”) It’s a highlight of Helm’s funky hoot of a follow up, something that represented the completed home, picket fence and all — a beautiful rural conjuring, hard-eyed at times but rollicking and vulnerable in the way that the very best Southern music always is. And another powerful reminder of what’s been lost.

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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. Click here to see past entries.

Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock 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 nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at