The Band, “The River Hymn” from Cahoots (1971): Across the Great Divide

One of Levon Helm’s loveliest, most fervent vocals is tucked away at the end of an often-overlooked, often over-thought album, as “The River Hymn” brings the Band’s darkly ruminative Cahoots to a churchy close. Maybe Cahoots — and this song itself — couldn’t quite grasp everything it was reaching for. But “The River Hymn” still shows what a performance, stripped of artiface and centered on a generations-old sense of place, can do to bridge that gap.

As a symbol, the endless river stood in stark contrast to the carnival-like atmosphere that dominated this album’s beginning. Much of what came in between had posed deeper questions about modern times, with outwardly nostalgic titles like “Last of the Blacksmiths,” “Where Do We Go From Here?” and “Smoke Signal.” Looking back, that could be seen as a metaphor for the fracturing of the Band itself, as much as a probing inquiry into the loss of tradition.

But what of this track, this final, overstuffed burst of faith-filled light? “The River Hymn” seemed like a passage way to something else, though we know not what. Perhaps, it’s a promise for salvation, if not for the Band itself then for the rest of us. Whatever it’s deeper import, the Band ultimately crafted one of their shared discography’s most spiritually uplifting moments, almost as if they are singing in the spirit — though its busy arrangement tries to obscures these wonders.

Pay close attention to Garth Hudson, who offers a gospel-tinged opening statement before a switch to the Lowrey adds these plumes of ruminative color. Later, Robbie Robertson’s saloon-keeper’s piano is perfectly matched to Richard Manuel’s loping rhythm. That’s the equal and opposite, in terms of texture, of the choir-like vocal contributions of Libby Titus. Then Helm’s partner, she joins in a few heavenly asides with Rick Danko and Manuel, a distracting choice at first — but one that later begins to make more narrative sense.

After all, Helm’s stirring, utterly ardent approach with Robertson’s lyric ultimately sounds as ecclesiastical as anything the Band ever did, irrespective of the musical maelstrom all around. Listen as Helm’s voice cracks, on the final iteration of the word “son.” You can almost feel the baptismal waters running away from your face in rivulets.

Along the way, “The River Hymn” seems to answer the questions that Cahoots has raised, about the manner in which folkways can continue forward into modern times, about the way faith can sustain us, about the comfort and foundation of music. Those are big ideas, and Robertson tries to match them with a suitably episodic, almost cinematic palette.

Perhaps expectedly, “The River Hymn” fell flat with fans of the Band’s more typically straight-forward, roots-bound approach. As with many overly ambitious moments, I suppose it could be seen as a noble failure. That is, if it wasn’t so completely, heart-openingly beautiful.

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.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has explored music for USA Today, 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 nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso