As has been reported by virtually every source on music news on the planet, Levon Helm, the drummer and vocalist of legendary 60s/70s roots rock group The Band, has entered what his family is calling “the final stages” of his battle with cancer. That assuredly translates to “Levon Helm only has days or weeks to live,” and it’s a sad, sad day for music fans around the world. A group who earned their moniker as THE Band by being the backing band for none other than Bob Dylan himself and went on to cement their own legacy as one of the best touring and studio bands of the late 60s is losing one of the key parts of their sound. The Band was the group that reminded me that it was ok to enjoy country-tinged and southern fried rock and roll even as I was raging against the blandness of the modern country musicians who tried to capture the rootsiness of acts like the Band and their kin. I’m choosing to honor Levon Helm and his legacy as one of the premier musicians of his era by making one of their songs, the seminal “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” as today’s Song of the Day to do my small part to help cherish this band’s memory.
The above video is from the Martin Scorsese directed documentary film The Last Waltz which was the last time that Levon Helm performed the song with The Band. I chose this particular song (as opposed to perhaps more appropriate fare like “The Weight,” “I Shall Be Released,” or “Up On Cripple Creek”) because of a recent event that occurred with me and this song here in NYC that I will now always associate with this classic track. I live in a predominantly African-American/Caribbean neighborhood although I’m whiter than vanilla ice cream. My neighborhood is perfectly safe, but, it’s not easy to forget I’m the minority here. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” came on my iPod one day when I was coming home from work. I was also the last white person left on the train (as usual after I get past Franklin Ave.). While there are no racist undertones to the song (and considering that Helm was the only American in an otherwise entirely Canadian band, I highly doubt that they were pro-Confederate) and as Dylan’s backing band I’m sure their political beliefs were suitably leftist, I’m still a white liberal suffering from loads of liberal guilt, and as soon as this song came on, I began to freak out that I was going to become the center of some Spike Lee, Do The Right Thing-esque racial incident. I was too packed in to grab my iPod out of my pants pocket to change the song, and it was playing so loudly I feared everyone on the train would hear it. Thankfully that wasn’t the case.