Tag Archives: The Last Waltz

Levon Helm

29 Sep

The latest edition of American Songwriter has a great story about the late Levon Helm, which made me purchase my first ever copy.

Like a lot of other people, I read about Helm’s passing earlier this year, and, for some reason, it struck me enough to read more about who he was. As it turns out, I knew all about him before I knew about him. Doesn’t make sense? Then, I’ll put it this way. I had been enjoying the talents of Levon Helm all of my life and never realized it.

To me, the most entertaining songs are the ones that tell a story and allow me to direct a scene in my mind. Two songs that attracted my attention as a kid were performed by The Band and, unknown to me at the time, sung by Helm. One was “The Weight“, with lyrics that took me into a world that was just a little different from the real one. My favorite part went:

I picked up my bag and I went lookin’ for a place to hide

When I saw Carmen and the Devil walkin’ side by side

And I said, “Hey, Carmen, come on, would you go downtown”

And she said, “Well, I gotta go but my friend can stick around”

The entire song is great, but that line always stuck with me. The Band also performed “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down“, a song about the destruction caused by the Civil War. Maybe, it’s because I live in the South. Maybe, it’s because I am a historian. But, I agree with the magazine article that this song should be played for every class about the Civil War. It is a haunting song with lines like:

Back with my wife in Tennessee, when one day she called to me

“Virgil, quick, come see, there go the Robert E. Lee”

Now I don’t mind choppin’ wood, and I don’t care if the money’s no good

Ya take what ya need and ya leave the rest

But they should never have taken the very best.

As I read about Helm’s career, I realized that there was one thing I needed to do to honor him. I had to see The Last Waltz, the movie about the last concert of The Band that is considered to be the greatest concert film ever made. Luckily, the Belcourt, Nashville’s historic theater, was going to give me the opportunity. As the movie played, I realized a couple of things. Helm was the soul of The Band, and Robbie Robertson thought he was the soul of The Band. The movie focused on Robertson and missed the real story. No wonder the two men never got along after its filming.

But, here’s the thing. I had seen Helm in movies before and never realized it. I have seen The Right Stuff numerous times and never realized that he narrated the movie and played Jack Ridley, the best friend of Chuck Yeager.

He also play Mr. Rate in Shooter, a movie where Mark Wahlberg is framed for the assassination of the president. I know that it sounds dumb on the surface. However, I promise that it is good, Helm plays in the most memorable scene.

As I wrote, I knew Levon Helm before I really knew him. He sang some of my favorite songs, and he acted in some of my favorite movies. It was only after his death that I realized that he was more than a singer and an actor. He was the foundation of one of the greatest bands ever assembled. His talent altered music. In short, he was Levon.