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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Levon Helm and the true nature of singing

The American Civil War is the key event in their history. More Americans were killed during that war than in every subsequent conflict the nation was involved in, up to and including the Korean War. The events of 1865, when the Confederate states were crushed, starved and then humiliated, aren't reflected in many rock songs. It's amazing that Robbie Robertson, a Canadian, had the nerve to write one about it. Levon Helm, who came from Arkansas, which is as Southern as you get, always said he took him to the library to make sure he got the historical detail right but his greatest contribution to its authenticity was in singing it. For that alone he was its co-author.

"Virgil Cain is the name and I served on the Danville train/Til Sherman's cavalry came and tore up the tracks again". That's what the Federal troops did to make sure that the Conferederates couldn't re-supply. Every time the railway line was relaid they ripped it up. Levon Helm sings it like a man into whose soul a certain amount of iron has just been introduced. As somebody said to me the other night, no other record inserts you into an historical moment as quickly and as dramatically as that one does. And that, Simon Cowell, is singing.