The difficulty, and the startling alchemy, of “Hobo Jungle” is in the straight-forward, determinedly unsentimental performance by Richard Manuel, who sang this homeless narrative like someone who had looked into the abyss and seen it staring right back. He pulls no punches, gives nothing away to the nostalgic, the treacly or the funereal. Each word arrives like a gut punch.
It is a song about dignity within loss, a song about trying to find meaning without the anchor of normalcy, about treasuring small, good things even if they’ve emerged from ugly, overlooked places. Much of the credit for that goes, of course, to Robbie Robertson — who crafted a lyric as intricate as it is specific. He calls them “rounders,” a perfectly old-fashioned synonym for these honorable ne’er-do-wells; he understands the ultimate freedom in having no possessions because there are also no concurrent debts.
But, as Manuel’s ever-more-oaken performance on “Hobo Jungle” makes clear, the track would have withered in most anyone else’s care.
“There’s no doubt that it was thrilling to me to be able to put a song into the hands and tools of Richard,” Robertson tells us, in an exclusive SER Sitdown. “To this day, I still don’t know any singers that can bring that kind of sadness so boldly and movingly to the front.”
Much, of course, had been made by then of the changes in Manuel’s voice, as he waged a pitched battle with fame, with the bottle, with things much worse. So much of the elastic expressiveness of his initial performances with the Band had been by then lost. But, in a fortuitous moment, Manuel’s mid-1970s-era timbre — dry and direct, far more darkly emotional — matches the narrative on “Hobo Jungle” just as perfectly as did earlier collaborations with Robertson that include everything from “King Harvest” and “Whispering Pines” to “The Shape I’m In” and “4% Pantomime.”
Robertson’s crisp and lonesome acoustic is pushed along by one of Levon Helm’s most mournful cadences, while Garth Hudson’s keyboard and accordion work help complete the song’s purpled atmospherics. After a lengthy period of searching, but oftentimes not finding, the connections that had made their earliest recordings resonate so completely, it was already clear that Robertson and the Band were on the same wavelength again with Northern Lights-Southern Cross. And the album hadn’t even revealed the first of its three bona-fide classics in “Ophelia,” each of them songs that belong in the same conversation with the most important moments in the Band’s storied catalog.