Last ride of the Midnight Rambler

Look at how a steam locomotive works sometime.

You’ll notice the way the straight shaft of the pistons, attached to a fixed point on the wheel, travels by way of a herky-jerky elliptical force. It’s a weird motion that seems to fight with itself to create fluid, straight and forward momentum.

Levon Helm played his instrument that way sometimes. An oblong, elliptical movement started in the muscles and ball joints of his shoulders, which threw his arms out in front of his body. Drumheads and cymbals were just scheduled stops in an efficient, cyclical motion whose objective was to get a song where it was going, to get there on time and to swing it. Levon was known to sing a lick while he was driving, too.

Helm’s death shook me up more than I expected, and I’ve worn something of a dolorous little path between the record player, YouTube and my guitar these past few days trying to get a grip on it. The Band was one of the first groups I heard growing up that made sense to me — not just musically and emotionally, but historically.

I’m not a savvy student of rock history. I haven’t read a lot of the audiophile exposés about famous records, and, on the whole, music magazines make me queasy by reinforcing artistic inadequacies I’d just as soon leave be. I read Helm’s autobiography, “This Wheel’s On Fire,” a few years back, though, and I was glad of it. While obviously only one perspective, and a necessarily self-serving one at that, the book’s attention to Helm’s musical upbringing supplemented my understanding of The Band’s place in the chronology of a sound that has since been dubbed — anemically and unfortunately, I think — Americana or American Roots music.

Helm was a member of a small and curious demographic of Southerners who witnessed how the music orbiting the agrarian (if rapidly modernizing) South — played on home radios, and at barn-dances, country fairs and minstrel shows — became transformed in the years bracketing WWII into the most significant, popular and far-reaching artistic expression of the 20th century. In one of the few scenes of the 1978 documentary “The Last Waltz,” in which someone other than Robbie Robertson is allowed to weigh in, Helm talked to Martin Scorsese about the musical synthesis that took place in the American South in the ’40s and ’50s:

Helm: That’s kinda the middle of the country back there you know … bluegrass or country music if it comes down to that area, and if it mixes there with rhythm, and it dances, then you’ve got a combination of all those different kinds of music: country, bluegrass, blues music, show music.
Scorsese: And what’s it called then?
Helm: Rock ’n’ roll.

It seems like a simplistic way of talking about very complicated, incremental cultural movements, but I’m always thinking that things are “complicated” and “incremental.”

To a little kid from a delta cotton farm who saw Bill Monroe playing speed metal versions of hillbilly tunes at the fair, then snuck into a tent to hear the jazzed-up rhythms and risqué stage shows of midnight rambles; to a young man who ran off every chance he got to the KFFA studio in Helena, Ark., to watch Sonny Boy Williamson perform on “King Biscuit Time” and got back home in time to catch Carl Perkins on the radio in the living room — to that kid there was likely nothing complicated about it. It was good music that seamlessly connected his time to his place.

What I love about The Band, and the character of Levon Helm as I understand him, are the ways they embodied that ethic in their musicianship.

The Band was not a derivative mechanism. They were not beholden to their predecessors, they were in conversation with them, and they were legitimate inheritors of a motley grab bag that culminated in rock music.

So what do you get when four Canadians and an Arkansas boy walk into a bar to distill and bottle American musical tradition together every night for 25-plus years? You get a strain of popular music that succeeded, more than any other group of the time I would argue, in re-interpreting the past as relevant and perfectly suited to the present. The Band’s approach to the musical history of the American South made pitch-perfect sense in the cultural and musical moment of the 1970s and, miraculously, it still make perfect sense today.