I see that Levon Helm drummer and singer from the The Band passed away this past week. When I was in 8th grade my music teacher wanted to demonstrate how you can learn about history through music. The song she chose was The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, written and performed by The Band. Rather than reviewing generals and presidents and grand battles, the song puts you down at ground level among the American people during the last days of the Civil War to feel the cost of war. Food shortages, losing family members, utter disruption and sadness. Levon sang lead and played drums on that song and even my thirteen-year-old self could feel it.
So this is what The Band did for music with Music from Big Pink. It’s 1968 – picture the Beatles Sgt. Pepper (majestic studio creations), the Jefferson Airplane (long jams, acid rock), and Eric Clapton in Cream (even longer jams, blues). The music was flashy, ornate, and very ‘swinging London‘. The cool people said ‘don’t trust anybody over 30′. Clothes? Space age fibers and don’t ask what else. (Think Austin Powers) Into this dropped The Band. They didn’t look like 1968 – they looked like they were picked up off the Oregon Trail. They were happy to have their extended families pictured on their album cover. They played concise songs that either came from American history or else sounded like they did. The guys played multiple instruments and they had 3 lead singers, so they changed the sound and singers to suit the music. Their first LP stopped the tastemakers in their tracks.
The Band’s impact started with their fellow musicians. Eric Clapton heard The Weight and decided he didn’t want to do 20 minute guitar solos anymore. He left Cream saying he wanted to join The Band. The Grateful Dead had been thinking along similar lines anyway so they added an acoustic set to their 2 and 3 hour long shows. The Beatles decided to do an album playing together at the same time, with no overdubs. Originally they were going to call it Get Back. It ended up being called Let It Be. Fairport Convention decided to do for English traditional music what The Band were doing for American traditional music. Even Elton John’s first few albums had songs set in the old west with names like Burn Down the Mission, My Father’s Gun and Levon.
Let’s measure the impact another way. Big Pink is a house some of the guys in the Band were renting in 1967-1969. It’s near Woodstock, New York. Yes, the famous festival was located there in part because this was where Dylan and the Band were thought to be.
Now we call the music Americana. There was country music along with the blues and folk and pop music right from the beginning of rock and roll, so these guys didn’t invent anything. Between 1966 and 1968 The Band, Buffalo Springfield, Bob Dylan, and the Byrds provided a needed course correction. Nobody in the band acknowledged a leader, and Robbie Robertson put together the words, but all the obits I’ve seen have stated the obvious – that Levon Helm was the heart and soul of that band. Have a listen and see what I mean.