Listening to The Band, I sometimes imagine myself walking through wild cornfields on a cool summer’s night, across ivy lanes, past broken baseball fields and mom-and-pop diners, trying to find my way home. There, in the background, somewhere in the distance, The Band is playing their music, smiling benevolently at Norman Mailor’s hippie armies, costumed in full regalia, looking as though they just stepped out of a nineteenth-century sideshow. I see Robbie Roberstson, in his happy straw hat, a minstrel among minstrels, singing a patrician song for the plebeians, knowing that he alone can guide me back to an America that is all but gone. He takes off his hat and gives me a nod as I stroll by. Suddenly my family comes into view, sitting on our white porch, illuminated by the moon’s lonely light; my darling runs into my arms. Finally, I am home.
The Band’s is a world inhabited by drunken sailors and organ grinders, by Confederate generals and Cajun refugees, by outlaws and lawmen, by itinerant preachers and adulterers. Their music – a constant meditation on the end of old America – conveys an incredible longing for a lost Americana, a youthful country that still believed in its mission and its own limitless possibilities.
The Band was an anachronism before it was even formed – who would have thought that four white Canadians and white man from Mississippi could really play the blues? Originally assembled, person-by-person, as a backup group for Ronnie Hawkins, a well-known blues/rockabilly figure in the early sixties (a period of darkness for bluesy rock-and-roll – after Buddy Holly’s death, Elvis and others shied away from “black music,” and the entire pop scene moved toward bubble-gum), The Band eventually parted ways from Hawkins in 1963, striking out on their own.
After supporting Bob Dylan throughout his controversial 1965-66 electric tour, The Band came into its own in 1966 when they set up shop, alongside Dylan, in a pink barn in Woodstock, New York. Out of that house and that collaboration came the magnificent Basement Tapes (done with Dylan), as well as The Band’s first full-length album, Music From Big Pink, released in 1968.
In Music From Big Pink, The Band, under Dylan’s tutelage, came to understand and appreciate American music and roots culture. Similar in this respect to the Grateful Dead (who were also deeply knowledgeable folklorists; American Pastoral is a seminal work), The Band created a new sound, grounding stripped-down, electric rock-and-roll in old blues and folk.
Big Pink’s haunted Americana can be found in the very first song, “Tears of Rage.” In “Tears of Rage,” Garth Hudson’s wailing Lowrey organ introduces us to a new sound, as the song tells the tale of a wayward daughter, “carried in our arms on Independence Day.” While I’m not entirely sure what the song means – it is open to interpretation – I do not think it a stretch to say that the daughter is symbolic of old America. “Tears of Rage” is a song about the downfall of America, and American materialism. The Band sings of a “heart filled with gold as if it was a purse,” and of “false instruction” in a “love which goes from bad to worse.”
The most touching song on Big Pink is “Long Black Veil,” which has strong echoes of Melville, the quintessential American author. Like Melville’s brilliant short story, “The Minister’s Black Veil,” the song tells the story of a perfect New England tragedy. “Long Black Veil” is the tale of a man unjustly hanged for a murder he did not commit. Falsely accused, the man cannot prove his innocence: “The judge said `Son, what is your alibi / If you were somewhere else then you won\\\\\\\’t have to die’ / I spoke not a word although it meant my life / I had been in the arms of my best friend\\\\\\\’s wife.” It is a truly American story of the sinner amongst all of us, striking at the heart – and the tragedy – of an ancient Puritanism. In the song, the mournful melody and wailing organ culminate with the haunted lover’s boundless grief: “Sometimes at night when the cold wind moans / In a long black veil she cries over my bones.”
In their second album, The Band, Roberstson and Company again throw the listener into the arcane world of Americana, moving to their favorite subject: the South. In their most famous historical song, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” The Band evokes the Lost Cause in all its glory. The narrator, Virgil Caine, is a Confederate veteran who has lost his brother in the War and returns home to find a defeated Tennessee countryside, where hope has all but disappeared. The Band sings of the final days of the Civil War, “when we were hungry, just barely alive,” and of the fall of Richmond (the song is very well-researched, giving a specific date for Richmond’s surrender – May 10). The Band describes a world destroyed; the South would never be the same. Yet underneath Virgil’s despair lies a sweet, melancholic acceptance of change, for as they “drove Old Dixie down the people were singing.” The Band captures the heart of the Lost Cause: the mythic Southern persistence in the face of total hopelessness. Yet the song paints a distorted picture of the War and its aftermath, for it depicts the heartache of the South without reminding us of the pain the South itself inflicted upon the American soul.
The Band captures perfect moments in American history. True (somewhat) to their Canadian roots, in “Acadian Driftwood” – from Northern Lights Southern Cross – they sing of the great Acadian migration from Quebec to Louisiana, of the birth of Cajun culture following the British conquest of French Canada. Again, The Band preaches the heartache of history: “Acadian driftwood / Gypsy tail wind / They call my home the land of snow / Canadian cold front movin\\\\\\\’ in / What a way to ride / Ah, what a way to go.” They sing of expulsion, of the British government that made the Acadians “walk in chains” and of the final arrival in New Orleans. At the end of the song, The Band breaks into French: “Ta neige, Acadie, fait des larmes au soleil” (“Your snow, Acadia, makes tears with the Sun”). “Acadian Driftwood” is a song about lost history; it recounts a piece of Americana few remember along with a longing for home that has played a distinct role in the American experience.
The Band wrote many more songs that encapsulate old America and American music; my list, and nominal exegesis, is hardly exhaustive. “Rockin’ Chair,” (a beautiful song, performed brilliantly on the deluxe version of the “Rock of Ages” concert) is the story of an old sailor whose only wish is to return home to “sweet Virginia.” “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” evokes the struggles – and victories – of poor union farmhands. “Last of the Blacksmiths” and “The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show” describe the decline of an entire way of life. Songs such as “The Weight” use religious imagery (“Nazareth,” “Judgment Day”) to capture the spirituality of old American song.
At their best, The Band created holy music, religious in its outlook and messianic in its impulses, grounded in a blind faith in America’s promise. Despite – or perhaps because of – the turbulence of the late sixties, The Band made music in which both leftist hippies and reactionary conservatives could listen to and believe. The Band’s mythic America is an America that despite its crimes, despite its frequent mistakes, I too believe in. Yet it is, at the same time, an America that I have never actually known, an America foreign to my ancestors. Mine is a New York Jew’s infatuation with the South, with Old America and its music. The Band’s – and my own – nostalgia is for a country that never really existed, for a South without racism and slavery, for an America at peace with itself. It is a fictional America, but there is nevertheless something to it that is very real. The Band’s sweet, sweet music provides a vision of a mythic, perfect America. If this country is to ever succeed in its broken promise, if we are to ever move beyond our haunted past, we must come to believe in The Band’s mystical America.