My favorite non-musical moment in The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese's legendary 1978 film of The Band's final concert, is a scene in which Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson are sitting around talking about musical influences, or something. It's hard to concentrate on what's being said, because Helm strikes a match, lights Robertson's cigarette, and continues to hold the burning match for the longest time while he finishes his thought. Is he going to burn his fingers? Finally, he lights his own cigarette and shakes out the match.
Come to think of it, all of my favorite musical moments in the film are centered around Levon Helm, too. "Up On Cripple Creek," "The Weight," "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"—those were The Band's signature tunes, and all of them featured Helm's powerful and distinctive vocals. When the film was released, Levon Helm complained that The Last Waltz had turned into Robbie Robertson's private art house ego trip, but for me, Helm stole the show and put the real heart into it. He's one hell of a drummer, too.
In 1998, Levon Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer, and underwent surgery and radiation therapy. Cancer robbed his voice of some of its power and versatility, but took none of its soulfulness and conviction. Helm was the son of a cotton farmer from Marvell, in southeastern Arkansas, and on Dirt Farmer, his Grammy-winning 2007 comeback album, he returns to his roots. The disc starts out with a Ralph Stanley tune, "False Hearted Lover Blues," featuring some outstanding drumming and passionate vocals that sound no less grittily authoritative than those of Mr. Stanley himself. Just as important, Helm sounds like he's having a hell of a lot of fun making music.
Dirt Farmer mixes traditional tunes, like "The Girl I Left Behind" (which Helm learned from his parents), with covers of songs by the likes of Steve Earle ("The Mountain") and Paul Kennerly ("A Train Robbery"). The band features the great guitar work of Larry Campbell and beautiful backing vocals by Teresa Williams and Helm's daughter Amy. One of my favorite moments is in the title song, "Dirt Farmer," when he sings:
Poor old dirt farmer, how bad he must feel,
He fell off his tractor, up under the wheel,
And now his head
Is shaped like a tread
But he ain't quite dead.
You get the feeling, listening to Levon Helm's voice, that he's been there—that he's fallen off his tractor a time or two, burned his fingers on that match, and survived to see the humor. A lot of life has gone into that voice.
Bonus link: Only Halfway Home, a 20-minute film featuring four songs from the album.
My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .
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