Levon Helm, “False Hearted Lover Blues” from Dirt Farmer (2007): Across the Great Divide

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When the late Levon Helm decided to return to the Americana roots that had for so long nourished his career, he did it his way. He’d sing with everything he had, despite having suffered a health scare in the late 1990s — and he’d play. And that was the difference, between bluegrass and something Helm was interested in: That pulse. Like a racing heart, inside of him — and inside of his music.

He’d play the drums.

That made “False Hearted Lover Blues,” the Roaring Twenties-era lament born anew on 2007’s Dirt Farmer, leap out of history. Suddenly, this take of a cuckold’s woe could have been from our time, too.

It’s the drums.

Helm’s approach with the lyric still portrays a few nooks and crannies, the residue of a six-year journey back to the microphone after losing his voice completely to that initial bout with cancer. “I had a period of time there for about two-and-a-half years or so,” Helm recalled in 2007, “where I had to just kind of whisper or either write you a note and tell you what I wanted you to know. And, of course, you know, there’s nothing I can do except just be the drummer, which is my main ambition, anyway.”

Remember, Helm had famously walked out on a chance to continue touring with Bob Dylan into Europe as the singer-songwriter went electric — in part, because Levon had been leading his own band for years. But also, because he never quite bought into the troubadour thing. The Hawks, and this was in Levon Helm’s image, were randy, R&B-focused, tough.

Fast forward 40 years, and Helm could be found delving into front-porch pickers like “False Hearted,” but yet something of that country rebel remained. Though the song grew out of the Appalachian tradition — having been famously recorded in the late ’20s by Dock Boggs, a coal miner from southwestern Virginia who had a way with the banjo; and later by Ralph Stanley — Helm’s update is anything but bluegrass. That’s thanks, in no small way, to his remarkable ability to juggle the roles of vocalist and time keeper.

“Singing,” Helm added, “is usually a full-time job — and drumming is usually a full-time job. The way I do it is very simple. I don’t think about it too much. I know that my key words are going to fall on the down beat, most of the time. The answer words are going to fall on the backbeat, most of the time — and I’m going to count time with my right hand. So, you let it fall like that, and put your words on the beat.”

If the words would come. For so long, they simply wouldn’t. And so, he drummed — and that was gift enough. But Dirt Farmer heralded a third act for Levon Helm, as celebrated as it was unexpected. After nearly 30 radiation treatments, Helm once confirmed that he wasn’t thinking about singing again. He was trying to survive. “Just to get through it, and live — and keep playing music,” he told Anthony Mason as Dirt Farmer arrived. “I couldn’t talk or laugh, but I finally got to where I could talk a little bit, and laugh a lot.”

You hear a twinkle in Levon’s voice, to be sure, as he crows: “False hearts have been my downfall, pretty women have been my craze,” recalling every nutty girl he ever fell ass over teakettle for during his celebrated career with the Band. Yet there’s something else here, too — something deeper, something more than the pleasure of hearing his ageless interpretive genius. A desire to dig further back in his own musical history brought Helm to this album, which won Helm the first of three straight Grammys, and then to something more.

Helm dedicated Dirt Farmer to his parents, but it’s the co-mingling of his daughter Amy’s voice that seems to center the project. An invaluable source of strength through his chemotherapy, she ended up co-producing Helm’s comeback. Late in his life, those bonds — the shared blood, like its own backbeat — became stronger. And at last, it seemed, Levon Helm found some measure of peace.

“You know, they are stronger for me now,” he admitted in a talk 2007 talk with Terry Gross, “and I’ve always appreciated my family and friends, you know, and those ties that bind us together. But it’s like my music, this much later and after you’ve almost got everything taken away from you, once you get that back, boy, it’s a joyful life that we’ve all been given.”

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.

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