We lost Levon Helm today. An Arkansas native and drummer for The Band, he was one of the great figures of rock ‘n’ roll. In Esquire, Charles P. Pierce writes about his voice in particular:
It was tough and sound and brooked no easy answers. (When, an album later, he voiced the story of Virgil Kane, a grunt in the Confederate army, he managed to push the story beyond politics. You swear by the mud below your feet and you make a pact with the land that nothing can break.) It was a Southern voice, certainly, but there was in it that universal sense that we are all in this great experiment together, that we hold a number of truths to be self-evident and the ones that Mr. Jefferson listed were only the very beginning of them. That there is a commonwealth that binds us, through the worst of what we can do to each other, and the worst of what we can make of our promise. For all the wild rhetoric and the political posturing, and for all the horror that extended from My Lai to the floor of the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel and back again, that we all had an America to come back to, no matter how long we were away, no matter even if we were half-past dead. Because that America was the America of the tall tale, the underground history, the renegade, buccaneer country that belongs to all of us. Levon Helm told those stories. He gave that history a voice that we could all hear over the din of the times.
He was the true Voice of America, as far as I’m concerned.
I love The Band, but that era has been worked to death in my estimation. His later stuff—Electric Dirt and Dirt Farmer—has its own kind of grace. If you don’t know it, you should check it out. And watch the video above!
HAT TIPS: To Encyclopedia Virginia media editor Donna Lucey for introducing me to Electric Dirt (I believe I loaned her Dirt Farmer), and to BackStory producer Nell Boeschenstein for pointing the way to Pierce’s homage.