Levon Helm’s essential Band songs: Gimme Five

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Born on May 26, 1940, Levon Helm will be remembered as a country proselytizer, an inventive interpreter, a uniquely emotive drummer – and always, always one of a kind.

Originally with the Band, Helm’s playing revealed itself as an involving mixture of rhythm and emotion – someone once said he was the only drummer who can make you cry – while his singing remained a wonder of ribald bewilderment, old-time religion and shotgun shack-rattling joy. He appeared as part of a chorus that often performed as if they were brothers. As such, the Band’s records shared a similar sense of community, bringing in dizzyingly diverse, age-old influences.

Selecting any individual triumph from their discography eventually became something of a treasure hunt. Still, certain moments stand out as clearly belonging to Helm, and we’ve attempted to select five representative moments that every one should hear. There’s much, much more to Levon Helm’s legacy, of course. A trio of late-period Grammys helped to underscore his importance, both inside the Band and across the broader landscape of American roots music. But it is here, as part of the Band’s songs, that it first became manifest …

“UP ON CRIPPLE CREEK,”
THE BAND (1969)

The idea, as relayed by Levon Helm, that “Up on Cripple Creek” was a difficult song to capture on tape runs counter to everything you hear on this galloping moment of sheer joy.

When then finally nailed it, however, “Cripple Creek” became a signature moment: From its thunderous bottom end, all sharp-elbowed turns and goofball funk, to the paradise-on-earth reverie found in its title spot, to Garth Hudson’s saucy jew’s harp sound (which he got by running his clavinet — long before Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” — through a wah wah), everything about this song has a hip-wagging immediacy. “Cripple Creek” is so greasy and cool that the track would one day by sampled by Gang Starr on the 1991 hip-hop offering “Beyond Comprehension.”

“It kind of felt better, and it made it more danceable,” Helm once said of the song’s loping rhythm structure. “With the half-time feel, we were able to do that for ‘Up on Cripple Creek,’ and three or four more. ‘The Weight’ is another good example, back on Big Pink. There were no rules. It felt good, and we went with it.” Fans agreed, making this the Band’s first (and, ultimately, their only) Top 30 American hit.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Garth Hudson joined us for an exclusive Something Else! Sitdown to connect the dots between his early influences and the Band’s later rootsy triumphs.]

As for its origins, this Robbie Robertson construction seems to have jumped off from a similarly named bluegrass folk song, recorded by both Charlie Poole and the Stanley Brothers, among others. (There’s even some hound-dog yodeling toward the end from Levon Helm and Rick Danko; the Band, of course, had earlier covered Poole’s “If I Lose.”)

In this new iteration, we follow along as the Helm-voiced truck driving mischief-maker heads down the mountain considering a series of scally-wag adventures — but really, as Levon’s cries make clear, he remains utterly paralyzed by an inability to choose between the comforts of home and a particularly alluring woman in Lake Charles, Louisiana.

That Levon Helm accomplishes all of this while he’s playing the drums — this stunning performance on “Cripple Creek,” like Hudson’s, was recorded live — only adds to the song’s lasting sense of wonder. “People give me good credit, and I appreciate it,” the late Helm once countered. “They think it’s harder to play when you sing, but it’s actually easier, because you play along. You leave holes, and there’s where you sing.” But nobody, bless him, ever sounded better doing it.

“THE WEIGHT,”
MUSIC FROM BIG PINK (1968)

A cinematic, fever dream of a song, “The Weight” remains both an enigma and an emblem for its singer Levon Helm and the Band. Just what this track’s burden is? Well, that’s brilliantly unspoken, and theories over the years have run from a drug deal gone wrong, to a nasty case of the clap, to the idea of a traveling innocent coming of age through a series of Robert Johnson-level mishaps.

To be so resonant, to have become so closely associated with the sound and the myth of this group, it’s interesting to note that “The Weight” almost didn’t make Music From Big Pink.

“The Weight” was something Robbie Robertson had been working on, but that lay unfinished — and largely ignored. Late in the proceedings, the Band took it up again, but this time with Garth Hudson on piano (his saloon-rattling fills would become a signature element) and Richard Manuel at the organ. It would, belatedly, become one of six songs recorded on a four-track at A&R Studios in New York, and Levon Helm’s only lead on the Band’s debut. Helm had split as the Hawks became a backing group for Bob Dylan and 1965, not to return until they had their own deal. But, by then, much of the music that would become Music from Big Pink had already been developed through The Basement Tapes sessions.

Helm’s presence — both as a singer and as the wellspring for so many of this song’s principal characters — would serve as the catalyst that hurtled the Band into the wider public consciousness, apart from Dylan.

“The Weight,” a canny combination of Americana and deep South gospel, became a Top 40 hit in both Canada and the UK. Though the track stalled at just No. 63 on the Billboard charts, it would eventually chart three more times in the U.S. over the next year or so when covered by Aretha Franklin, Jackie DeShannon and the Supremes. None quite captured the seminal sense of dark-hued wonder put forth by Helm, and then Rick Danko (who steps to the fore for the fourth verse, then provides key shadings for the fifth) on the Band’s original. That vocal interplay — shared but not in unison — between Helm, Danko and Manuel (who adds a pained, wordless high harmony) owed much of its style to the Staple Singers, later collaborators on the Martin Scorsese-directed Last Waltz project.

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Of course, pinning down exactly what’s happened to our wandering protagonist never became any clearer. Owing much to Robertson’s fascination at the time with Luis Buñuel’s surreal style of filmmaking, the narrative presents a kaleidoscopic array of images, reference points — and blind alleys.

There are, to be sure, deep Faulknerian undertones — an idea, no doubt, sparked by the lyrical reference to “Go Down Moses,” one of the legendary Southern writer’s most memorable short stories. (It was, further back, an ageless African-American spiritual.) Faulkner’s tale of a small-time crook’s death-row fate syncs up in places, even boasting a bit character named Luke Beauchamp. But, in the end, that’s more of an atmospheric connection than anything that can be overtly argued.

There’s simply too much going on in “The Weight” to pin it to any one antecedent — and that surely was Robertson’s intent. The song is, at once, filled with specific moments and Rorschach-like in its ability to create differing impressions, even on successive listenings.

What is known, at least for careful readers of Helm’s autobiography This Wheel’s On Fire, is that “The Weight” is peopled with familiars from his native Arkansas. (Anna Lee Williams, Helm says, lived in Turkey Scratch, Helm’s hometown. Crazy Chester was a well-known figure in Fayetteville.) Robertson, meanwhile, admits that many of the song’s central moments were inspired by a trip back to the Delta with Helm. And yet, as with much of the group’s repertoire, songwriting for “The Weight” was credited solely to Robertson — a point of deep contention late in Helm’s life and, nowadays, for many of the Band’s most ardent fans.

That too becomes part of the cautionary tale that is “The Weight,” a song that Robertson, in the 1992 Mary Pat Kelly book Martin Scorsese: A Journey, said was “about the guilt of relationships, not being able to give what’s being asked of you. Someone is stumbling through life, going from one situation to another, with different characters. In going through these catacombs of experience, you’re trying to do what’s right, but it seems that with all the places you have to go, it’s just not possible.”

“RAG MAMA RAG,”
THE BAND (1969)

Sounding like a cross between a grease-popping Memphis blues and a Storyville flophouse song, “Rag Mama Rag” illustrated how complete a grasp the Band had for American song styles — despite their largely Canadian membership.

In other words, there was more than a simple narrative underpinning to Robbie Robertson’s initial notion of calling this sophomore release America. “We felt we knew America,” he once said, “that we’d been around every bend and every block and could talk truthfully about it.”

“Rag Mama Rag,” with its happy, improvisational feel, also showed that they could have fun with it.

After all, most of them weren’t even on their established instruments. Levon Helm, who handled the whiskey-swilling lead vocal, switched to mandolin, while Richard Manuel moved from piano to drums. Bassist Rick Danko is on violin, while Garth Hudson and producer John Simon add a honky tonk attitude on upright piano and tuba, respectively. The randy lyrics — credited solely to Robertson, but later asserted by Helm to have been a collaborative effort — bolster what becomes a moment of boozy, brothel-shaking joy.

Taken together, the track emerges, for me, with a kind of found-object magic — like the quintet was just fooling around, and “Rag Mama Rag” was captured on tape. Closer inspection, of course, quickly undoes that myth-making notion. No, this song rambles along with a focused, air-tight groove. They’re making it look easy, maybe even making it look like a goof, but the Band is in complete control. Every loose-limbed beat, every sawing fiddle bow, every yowling come on — it’s there for a reason.

Fans responded to this toe-tapping hootenanny, and it became a staple of the Band’s, and then Levon Helm’s, setlists from 1969 forward. “Rag Mama Rag” was, in fact, the Band’s highest-charting UK single, going all the way to No. 16. (It stalled at No. 57, oddly enough, in the U.S.) The song memorably appears on the Live at the Academy of Music concerts in 1971; and was also on 2011’s Ramble at the Ryman, which earned Levon Helm the last of three straight Grammy awards before he lost a battle with cancer.

“ALL LA GLORY,”
STAGE FRIGHT (1970)

Too often, Levon Helm is framed by his country-fried howl, but there was always more to his art — more to his voice, to his persona, to his life. “All La Glory” is a great place to achieve a vista on what lays beyond the knee-slapping joys of “Up on Cripple Creek,” “Rag Mama Rag” and “Strawberry Wine.”

Singing with a twilit reverie, Helm handles the Robbie Robertson lyric with a deeply touching grace — giving great insight into just where the Band was, away from the bright circle of fame that was so often trained on them in this period. Things seemed to be coming into a sharp, personal focus for these fanciful storytellers. Robertson, Richard Manuel and Levon Helm would each find new daughters in their lives by December of 1970, just a few months after Stage Fright arrived. This lullaby, more than any other to this point, shows the human side of these often overly dissected, yet still endlessly complex figures in the Band.

Then, there’s Garth Hudson. If Helm showed himself to have new depths of enchanting fragility on “All La Glory,” Hudson found his own space to amaze — expanding upon Robertson’s delicate guitar lines with a pining Wurlitzer accompaniment that sounds at times like a sleepy serenade and at others like an impossibly sweet dreamscape.

In a perfect moment of inflection, Levon Helm’s voice cracks ever so slightly as “All La Glory” swells to its emotional conclusion — and this song finds its place as perhaps the Band’s prettiest, most tender-hearted moment.

“THE NIGHT THEY DROVE OLD DIXIE DOWN,”
THE BAND (1969)

Perhaps the signature song from the Band’s eponymous sophomore release, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” heralds a key moment in the development of Robbie Robertson’s skills as a writer. But it will always be Levon Helm’s song.

This Civil War song doesn’t pick sides; instead, Helm’s delicately poignant vocal completely animates the Robertson lyric — stripping bare the awful costs of these kind of conflicts. Virgil Caine, another version of the itinerant grower Levon Helm would more fully explore in 2007’s Dirt Farmer, survived a battle to defend the Danville railway — a supply line to Tennessee — but can’t get past the things that were lost along the way: A brother, a sense of purpose, maybe his whole world.

In this way, no matter where your family stood in this conflagration of states, the track’s larger message hits home. As Greil Marcus once said: “You can’t get out from under the singer’s truth — not the whole truth, simply his truth — and the little autobiography closes the gap between us.”

With “Dixie,” Robertson had achieved a new vista, crafting a piece that echoed the rhythms of Helm’s Delta home, pulling in elements both personal and historically specific. The song, for instance, begins with a reference to Major General George Stoneman — a minor figure in the broader war but one who was deeply despised in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western Virginia and North Carolina for his demoralizing scorched-earth raids on civilian targets, similar to Stoneman mentor William T. Sherman’s infamous March to the Sea.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Amy Helm talks about the outpouring of recognition and support that has followed her father Levon Helm’s passing, including the renaming of an upstate New York highway.]

All of this works in concert to conjure a sense of place so visceral, with shades of both blue and gray, that it was difficult to believe the words didn’t actually belong to a son of the South like Levon himself. (Helm later said he took Robertson to the library to read up on the war; Robertson has said it took him some eight months to craft the lyrics.) By the time The Band emerged, every singer represented a different color palette to Robertson, and the images had gained a stunning dimension. And, as an outsider, he saw things in a way that someone more familiar with it all might never have.

“The only songs that we do in relation to the South at all are sung by Levon,” Robertson told Melody Maker in 1971, “and I write those songs for the people who sing them. Richard and Rick don’t sing about the South; it works for Levon because he’s from Arkansas. We’re not doing something that we don’t know nothing about. I’m trying to write songs that he could sing, lyrics that he can get off on — like ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.'”

Garth Hudson contributes a Hohner Melodica, and a far-away trumpet, while Richard Manuel and Rick Danko only add to the chorus’ stunning depth of emotion. Together, they explore America’s mythical past not through the brittle prism of grand-standing debates and grade-school dioramas but as an individual drama, like finding a lost chapter of The Red Badge of Courage. And all of it is felt as much as heard in Levon Helm’s lead vocal, creating as devastating a moment as has ever been played on rock radio — and one that’s gained even more resonance in this time without him.

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 usually runs on Thursdays.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, 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 U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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  • Davy Jones

    I’d swap All La Glory for When I Paint My Masterpiece

  • LennyPincus

    Note RR in 1971 saying he wrote the songs. Note nobody in the group in 1971 disagreeing with that statement.

  • Factsnotfibs

    If there was a “covers” list for Levon, I’d put Louis Jordan’s Caldonia and Randy Newman’s The Kingfish at the top of those lists. Rock on, boss!

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