I grew up listening to The Band, since my father is something of a fanatic. I still listen to them often, but in the last few years my dad has directed my attention to Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble recordings. I’ve seen The Last Waltz so many times that it’s hard to remember any one experience. I do think, though, that I can recall my initial response, as a child of ten or so, to Helm’s description, drawing on his own childhood memories, of the Midnight Ramble as a place and time at the beginning of rock ‘n roll when all the sexy stuff happened. After the kids went home, “the songs would get a little bit juicier and the jokes a little bit funnier, and the prettiest dancer would really get down and shake it a few times.” I wonder how he came to learn this, perhaps from overhearing adult talk? From sneaking around to juke joints, like Jerry Lee Lewis? I don’t know, but his words seem to encompass the everlasting allure of rock ‘n’ roll: a place and time, always at night and in the darkness, when after toiling in the troubles of the world we can feed our hungry spirits and really get down.
Helm is a grandpa now, and I’m a mama. Rock ‘n’ roll is still alive, but it’s calmed down a bit for most of us as we’ve had to learn to reconcile it with the difficulties of life and care for the next generations. When I listen to Helm’s recent Midnight Ramble recordings I hear pure Americana, the music that embraces the full body of American cultural experience. The Rambles include many songs from The Band but also old folk songs and black spirituals. This is music for working people who are connected to their community of folks busy trying to survive, singing and playing when the day is over and the sun is setting, making music to honor the spirit neglected during the travails of the day. It’s a beautiful place, reminiscent of youthful passions yet transcending sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll; it fills the gulf left in the soul by the ugliness of life.
Helm started his Midnight Ramblings at his barn in Woodstock, New York, in order to raise funds to pay for medical treatment following throat cancer. Initially, he was unable to sing, but his voice recovered, though it changed–diminished but still powerful, it’s now the conductor rather than the train.
I expect Helm and his Midnight Ramblers will play many tunes by The Band when they play the Michigan Theater on March 19, but I especially look forward to hearing Buddy Miller’s “Wide River to Cross,” a song that has been included on many of Helm’s recent albums, and which I think is a perfect representation of the Midnight Ramble: “I cannot look back now, come too far to turn around…I’ve got to journey on, to where I’ll find the things that I have lost.”
I hope to see you at the show. It’ll be a good one and an opportunity for us to be a community and really get down.