Photograph copyright Patrick Harbron 1992/2023
Photograph copyright Patrick Harbron 1992/2023

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down: Remembering Robbie Robertson

Robbie Robertson’s passing hits me from many angles. I had a pal who drove us to U.S. Steel mornings for what was a summer college job in ‘66. I know the family saw this as long-term employment; I saw the mill as a last stop before purgatory. My chauffeur was a nutty Dylan believer. Preached Bob the ride there and back. The times were changing. He’d quote lyrics about war, rustic locations, biker gangs and blossoming females, always with an eye on me and the road ahead. A pure soul when it came to folk music. None of those ambitious twelve string assailants or Elmore James types. Just vagabonds stumping from one town to the next, with a beat-up Sears and Roebuck strapped across the back. 

Then all hell breaks loose. Dylan goes electric. I’m wound tight to McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock and couldn’t give a fuck if Dylan played clarinet or bassoon. Bro takes issue and tries to rile me up. I’m oblivious and less than sympathetic. Then I catch a bit of the ensemble on the nightly news. Somewhere between Spiro Agnew poking a finger at protestors and General Westmoreland lamenting the daily body count in Vietnam. What I heard sounded like a garage band going for the goods. Dylan wasn’t the freewheeling Dylan I learned to tolerate, but Dylan trapped by cables and capos. I gradually processed.

I loved the crunch of 60s guitar players. Steve Cropper, George Harrison, Keith Richards come to mind. Players who seamlessly push just enough electricity through the guts of a guitar and blend with the rhythm section, while forcing the tube amps into overdrive. That pocket loudspeaker on the floor, spouting misery and shame. Hurt me, bro, rip my heart.

Robbie Robertson had that effect on me, although I couldn’t identify where it came from. Garth boldly channelled some spirit from a lost planet and banged out the wildest improvisations. The man gets an Oscar for making any organ other than Hammond worthy of a ride in a rock and roll band. Don’t say VOX or Farfisa. Those were bridge experiments that died quicker than a Steve Harvey one-liner.

Robertson and The Band made sense. You take the back country out of the hillbilly’s habitat and plug it into a wall socket.

I’m living in the East Village and buying LPs like each was the best meal of the day. I usually purchase according to cover and vibe and run my fingers across the backside and focus on the song titles. If it says Love Is All I Have, I’d put it back on the rack. Yet, when I read The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, Up on Cripple Creek, The Weight, The Shape I’m In, Chest Fever – this shit was for real. The men appear to have fought for the Union army under Sherman's scorched-earth campaign against General Robert E. Lee's forces.  And after the war settled back in their old ways of farming and marrying Wilomena. I could hear Ralph Stanley singing O Death. Old Buick's and Packard’s kicking up the back roads. Dad in his ’49 Ford running moonshine.

Levon Helm drove the band like he was certain it had just enough gas to ramp up a full set. Americana. You can’t explain this unless you grew up near a river, and time is all you had. A sun scorching hot, the stink from down stream of brewing Kentucky Bourbon baked into your skin. The holler of a mourning hound. A baptism and resurrection of the spirit. Lies told, lies accounted for.

A riverboat chugs up water as it passes working boats and rotting fish. That soulful morn of a calliope crying in the distance attaches itself to every living thing, and it's my music. The notes in between the notes that are supposed to be. Glorious American music. From the soil of hardship and loss - victories big and small.

I’ve sung a few Band songs – Robertson’s lyrics. Sheets of paper in 14 point - scripted imagery there to marvel at. Every bend in Richard Manuel’s delivery. Levon’s wail, the close harmonies, and tears in the voice. And Robbie’s guitar positioned down the middle itself as a lighting director. Casting colour, contrast, clarity, vibrancy, and completeness on an image of America lost forever.

Bill King

Ooh death

Whoah death

Won't you spare me over ‘til another year?

Well what is this that I can't see

With ice cold hands taking hold of me

Well I am death none can excel

I'll open the door to heaven or hell

Whoa death someone would pray

Could you wait to call me another day

The children prayed the preacher preached

Time and mercy are out of your reach

I'll fix your feet so you can't walk 

I'll  lock your jaw, so you can't talk

I'll close your eyes so you cant see

This very hour comes and go with me

Death I come to take the soul

Leave the body and leave it cold

To drop the flesh up off the frame

Dirt and worm both have a claim

Ooh death

Whoah death

Won't you spare me over ‘til another year?

My mother came to my bed

Placed a cold towel up on my head

My head is warm my feet are cold

Death is moving upon my soul

 Oh death how you treating me

You closed my eyes so I can't see

Well you hurt my body. You make cold

You run my life right out of my soul

Oh death please consider my age

Please don't take me at this stage

My wealth is all at your command

If you will move your icy hands

Oh the young, the rich, or poor

How will like me no (?)

No wealth no land no silver or gold

Nothing satisfies me but your soul

Ooh death

Whoah death

Won't you spare me over ‘til another year?

Won't you spare me over ‘til another year?

Won't you spare me over ‘til another year?

Ralph Stanley

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