Friday, April 20, 2012

King Harvest Has Surely Come (Goodbye Levon)

Levon Helm 
May 26, 1940- April 19, 2012
I thought I'd heard of the Band long before I actually heard the Band, but that was not trueIn 1965 I went to a Bob Dylan show at Constitution Hall here in Washington DC. I was I think 14- either 13 or 14 and staying with my father for the weekend. I remember this because my mother would never have allowed me to go to the concert, let alone buy me the ticket. (Thanks, Dad!)

I also remember thinking, "Wow... great band!"

Dylan With The Band
Of course it was years before I realized whom I had heard that night.

By 1968, the music magazines I read, like Hit Parader or the nascent Rolling Stone, were touting the Band's debut record Big Pink, a seeming offshoot of the so- called Basement Tapes of Bob Dylan's that, believe it or not, I still have yet to hear.

At first we all thought the group's name was Big Pink, but we soon found out they called themselves The Band, which, at the time, I thought was sort of pretentious.

In Danko's Basement ©Elliott Landy
Steve Graham bought the album and we listened to it constantly, especially to Levon Helm: mostly those drum fills on The Weight plus his outstanding (literally- he didn't sing much on the first record) vocal on the same song. Steve played drums, I sang, maybe Brad Beukema played guitar and we tried to get The Weight down, but we never did. Steve got pretty close to those fills though.

By the time the second album came out, I was a senior in high school. It was, if anything, better than the first. Here was the Band's sound: Levon's hardscrabble, Woody Guthrie tones, a deep Steinbeckian appreciation of the hard working man. It was like a vision of America sometime during the depression, evocative in the same way that R Crumb's comics were evocative of a time gone by when cartoons had cars with fat tires and men with big, big feet. In other words, a time that only seemed to have been.
Recording the second record in Hollywood © Elliott Landy
My personal favorite, King Harvest (Has Surely Come) was  troubled and dirge- like, while Rag Mama Rag played like something the Carter Family might have sang in their living room when Jimmy Rogers came over. Those voices, Levon, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel, were inlike any other in rock and roll. Three very individual singers worrying their way through those songs, those intense songs! Although the Band had a genuine R n' B background, and the songs and sound of the group were soulful, they were decidedly not in a copycat, minstrel- show way like the Stones or Rod Stewart.

This was the impression the Band made on me at the time and this is the impression I carry with me now.

Like, say, Booker T and the MG's, their's was virtuosity in service to a sound or even a way of life. And, of course, it was all done by Canadians. The only real American was Levon Helm.

If you had to have an American in your band, then have someone who had listened to Sonny Boy Williamson II on KFFA everyday when he was a kid, someone who played drums by watching drum-mer/ dancer/ eccentric Peck Curtis in his hometown of West Helena, someone who played the mandolin and the drums (and anything else) who better than Levon?

Levon in the Ronnie Hawkins Days
Levon to me became the voice of America. Not rock and roll America, or hardscrabble dust- bowl America, but all of America. That distinctive beautiful voice of The Weight or The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.

The WS Walcott Medicine Show © Elliott Landy
Over the years the Band has dissolved. Just as the others were not really Americans, they were also not really organic, old fashioned musicians or southern farmers out of a Sam Shepard play. They were not bygone relics from medicine shows and Salvation Army bands. Some of them were notorious drunks, and terrible drug addicts, Levon included. There was bitter infighting, especially between Levon and Robbie Robertson, the gifted architect of the group's signature sound. There's no irony that only Robertson and Garth Hudson, the sweet bearded keyboardist/ sax player are the only survivors. Richard Manuel hanged himself. What sort of demons haunted him?

After the Band broke up, having completed The Last Waltz, Levon worked as constantly as he could as an actor, session drummer, band leader and entrepreneur. His lack of writing credits on the group's records and a terrible bout with throat cancer that rendered him practically speechless also left him impoverished. He toured with a band of blues musicians from around Woodstock, playing drums and leaving the singing chores to others, sometimes his daughter Amy.

As a blues drummer, he was nonpariel. I heard him do four kinds of shuffles within one song, and he did them like breathing. What I wouldn't have given for a chance to sit in with "the old man" as my friend Pete Kanaras calls him.

Then two miracles happened: he regained about 85% of his singing voice and started a weekly gig at his Woodstock home called the Midnight Rambles, his version of a medicine show he had seen in Arkansas as a kid, back in the KFFA/ King Biscuit days. The Rambles took off, leading to sellout crowds every weekend. He released a great CD, Dirt Farmer, as if to prove his assertion that much of the Band's music came from him and not Robertson.

My daughter Charlotte went to a Midnight Ramble last year and loved every moment of it. I asked her if Levon sang and she said he just sang two songs.

"Which ones?" I asked.

"Ophelia and The Weight," she replied.

Well, of course! Good time, rollicking (yeah, I said rollicking) Ophelia- perfect! Back to the Ronnie Hawkins days of early Rock and Roll carousing. Then The Weight, the song  that introduced Steve Graham and myself  to the voice. That unique, incredible, unmistakeable voice.

The voice of America. That we hear singing. And will for years to come.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Thinking About Muddy Waters

Muddy would have been ninety- nine years old today, had he not died on April 30 in 1983.

Ninety- nine years ago he was born in abject poverty, like almost all African Americans born in the state of Mississippi in 1913. He was raised to farm, to work in a cotton field, to drive a tractor, maybe to preach, certainly to take care of his family and stay in debt for the rest of his life.

Of course, that's not what happened.

What happened was that he chose a different life, a life doing what he was really good at instead of doing what everyone else did. He chose to become Muddy Waters, blues singer, and he became, simply, the best Muddy Waters there ever was or would be.

He was McKinley Morganfield (what a wonderful name!) originally, born in a cabin in Jug's Corner, MI, and raised by his maternal grandmother. He learned to play harmonica at age thirteen, then guitar from watching bluesmen like Charley Patton and Son House and from the records of local blues celebrities, especially Robert Johnson.

He had mastered the stark sound of Delta Blues well enough that by the time Alan Lomax, then collecting songs for the Library of Congress, recorded Muddy, he was already unmistakably Muddy. The Stovall Recordings (from the plantation where Muddy worked) showcase a young, poised and confident Muddy Waters singing songs he would later re- record once he got to Chicago.

Muddy with the record from Alan Lomax
Lomax made good on his promise to send Muddy a 78 recording of two of the songs so that Muddy could put the record on the juke box of his little joint in the Delta. He liked the recording. He thought he sounded good. So good that he could leave the Delta and go somewhere to make some money as a singer. Some place where there was a community of folks who might also like his sound. "I can do it," he said when he played his record, "I can do it."

He decided on Chicago. Interestingly enough, he had been to Chicago previously in 1940, but had returned to Mississippi in a kind of daze. There must have been something, however, about the record  Lomax had pressed for him that cemented his confidence, because this time, in 1943, he stayed on in the Windy City.

Once in Chicago, young Muddy began right away to make a name for himself in small Chicago clubs, house rent parties, Sunday afternoons at Tampa Red's, in short, wherever people gathered to hear the blues. He made some unreleased recordings for Columbia, was mentored by Big Bill Broonzy, backed up John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson and acquired his first electric guitar.

His friend Sunnyland Slim got him an audition with Aristocrat Records. His first recordings were shelved but his third session produced I Can't Be Satisfied (a remake of the Lomax sessions'  I Be's Troubled) b/w I Feel Like Going Home. This record was released and became a huge hit for Aristocrat, soon to change its name to Chess Records.

Eventually Chess allowed Muddy to bring his full band (Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers, and Elgin Edwards and finally Otis Spann) into the studio, thus providing the instrumental template for rock n' roll bands from then on: two guitars, a keyboard, bass player, drummer and sometimes a harmonica.

The records these men made remain among the greatest blues records ever, copied over and over, dissected and re-mixed, re- released and issued on every kind of media so far invented. They are our American Treasures, the ultimate expressions of urban blues, fronted by Muddy's all- powerful dark Delta voice. Recordings that take you somewhere, and then leave you there just long enough to know you've been and gone.

The first photographs I ever took in my life were of Muddy in 1967. I was sixteen years old and using a borrowed camera. I remember thinking, as I looked at these men, "Maybe when I'm old enough, I'll be able to play like that."

Well, I'm older now than they were then, and I'm still trying.

Happy Birthday, Muddy- you were at the beginning of everything I've ever done of value: photography, harmonica- playing, getting married, raising a family- you were there for all of it. I can honestly say you helped me become the man I am today, and damn it- I'm still learning how to play those songs!