Forty-three years ago I worked for Levon Helm. I was the tour manager for The Band and in my book, Outlaw Blues, I recounted how Levon changed my whole notion of the “cracker”, a name he proudly embraced.
The first night back in LA the guys brought me down to the pool house and in Sammy Davis’s playroom (complete with giant bed and mirrors on the ceiling) they played me what they had recorded in the three months I had been away. The first tune they played was The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and by the song’s end, tears were welling up in my eyes. Once in a while works of art open up a window to a world one didn’t understand or didn’t even know. James Agee and Walker Evans had collaborated on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and it had opened up a window onto the life of the sharecropper. For me and many others, Levon’s plaintive singing on Dixie achieved the same effect, but in three minutes time. For a Northern liberal who had marched with Martin Luther King, all “crackers” were like Bull Connors to me. But the song gave me an understanding of Levon’s world that would last me the rest of my life. I never viewed the South with the same eyes after that night.
Looking back years later, I think the root of that understanding was that Levon could embody a mournful 19th Century Southern cracker in “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and yet live as one of the hippest 20th Century gentlemen I knew, who could hang out with Sonny Boy Williamson and loved Marvin Gaye’s music. The brilliance of the Robbie Robertson song of Southern defeat is that Virgil Caine (Levon’s character in the song) confesses at the end of the Civil War that “the very best” (including his brother) are dead and “like my father before me, I will work the land” (as a sharecropper?). There is no glory in war and you can’t eat off Dixie pride.
This contradiction embodied in this wonderful man, Levon Helm, is a contradiction we are still living with in America. This is the argument I have with the Techno utopians like Alexis Obanian. 99% of musicians, writers, actors are just “working the land”. They don’t need to get rich, they just want the honor of getting paid for their work. Levon and Garth Hudson made a good living ($150,000 a year) off royalties from The Band’s eight recordings in the 60’s and 70’s up until 2001 when the Big Pirate sites like Limewire and (in 2003) Pirate Bay really got going. And then the record royalties came to a halt. Levon and Garth did not write songs (I was there). Robbie, Richard and Rick did. There is the difference in income.
But the point is that in a normal economy (pre-piracy) Levon would have made a good living for his whole life, just for having been a brilliant singer and player on all those great records.That was quite enough.
His death hit me harder than I thought it would. Listen to “The Weight” and “Dixie” right now. You will agree he was one of the greats.