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.


  1. I can't think of another group who captured a mood, a feeling or told a story like The Band. To have such unique voices in one group; Helm, Manuel, Danko and Robertson.

  2. It wasn't Sherman's Cavalry, the lyric is "Stoneman's Cavalry."

    Also, as a "Northerner," I think the South did enough humiliating of their own just in the slavery that they coveted.

    Anyway, the song is awesome, and Leven Helm is a National Treasure.

  3. Was going to say that It's one of the greatest rock songs ever but it patently isn't a rock song, it defies category. It's just one of the greatest songs of all time.

  4. Wan't it "Stonewall's Cavalry" as in Stonewall Jackson?

  5. As was mentioned, the Union cavalry regularly tore up Confederate rail lines to prevent the movement of men and material to the front where Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was besieged at Siege of Petersburg. As part of the offensive campaign, Union Army General George Stoneman's forces "tore up the track again".

    Stoneman was a Union cavalry general in the American Civil War, and he went on to become the 15th governor of California.

    One side note: when Joan Baez sang the song, her interpretation of the lyric was "...till so much cavalry came..."

  6. Was it coincidental that this blog was written as Levon was dying?