There could have been no more perfect moment for Emmylou Harris’ timelessly lonesome sound to intertwine with Rick Danko’s and Levon Helm’s, as the Band relays the horror of a riverboat settling to the bottom of Big Muddy.
Harris plays the role of Evangeline, the bereaved lover, watching from high atop a river ridge as the sinking Mississippi Queen disappears with her lover, a gambler named Bayou Sam, still inside. Lightning surrounds her head like a halo, in one of Robbie Robertson’s more resonant requiems for the lost days of the old South — but all she can do is watch in frail disbelief.
The scene is completed by an instrument-swapping session that finds Helm on mandolin, Danko overdubbing a weeping fiddle and Garth Hudson pulling sad purple colors from an accordion, while Richard Manuel lays down one of his legendary lopes at the drums.
Danko takes the first verse, sounding as pained as he ever did, before Harris offers her first broken wail. For a measure of the brilliance of Harris’ performance, fast forward some three decades to a duet with Sheryl Crow on Helm’s Ramble at the Ryman. Levon, despite an on-going battle with throat cancer, is game; Crow, however, is utterly outclassed. In both cases Helm sounds as if he’s taken the full measure of this loss. His contributions to “Evangeline” arrive with a finality that closes like a cold hand around your heart.
Twin undercurrents of gospel and country, of course, often ran beneath the best of the Band’s music, something Robertson copped to by pairing the quintet with the Staple Singers (for a remarkable update of “The Weight”) and with Harris (for this new song) as part of The Last Waltz movie. Both scenes were filmed later on a sound stage, after the all-star Thanksgiving 1976 concert which made up the bulk of the motion picture, as Robertson continued to tinker with the larger concept while director Martin Scorcese completed another project.
That extra time gave Robertson an opportunity to finish crafting one of the Band’s most resonant late-period moments, marked both by thunderclap emotions and a knife-sharp specificity. (Evangeline, memorably, is from the Maritimes — a colloquial for the east coast of Canada.) His worthy foils in the Band, helped along by Harris’ melancholic fragility, did the rest.