helm

I have recently (re)fallen under the spell of Levon Helm’s music. His latest releases—Dirt Farmer (2007) and Electric Dirt (2009)—have some cuts that will be part of the soundtrack for this phase of my life. “The Mountain,” by Steve Earle, (on Dirt Farmer) is a heartbreak every time I listen. And “When I Go Away” on Electric Dirt is the best “Lord, I’m ready to die” song I know right now.

Coming back from throat cancer and suffering a number of other calamities (like the burning down of his barn studio), Helm now comes across as an indestructible force. Both these releases are a full return to his southern roots. And with his daughter Amy singing harmony, the whole project feels like home.

I’ve loved Helm since his days in The Band. Even though his post-cancer voice has more of a rasp, this is still the guy who sang lead on those great Band recordings like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and “Rag Mama Rag.”

And then, in the New Yorker, I find this wonderful poem. Pure delight.

Alternate Take: Levon Helm

I’ve been beating my head all day long on the same six lines,
Snapped off and whittled to nothing like the nub of a pencil
Chewed up and smoothed over, yellow paint flecking my teeth.

And this whole time a hot wind’s been swatting down my door,
Spat from his mouth and landing smack against my ear.
All day pounding the devil out of six lines and coming up dry

While he drives donuts through my mind’s back woods with that
Dirt-road voice of his, kicking up gravel like a runaway Buick.
He asks Should I come in with that back beat, and whatever those

Six lines were bothered by skitters off like water in hot grease.
Come in with your lips stretched tight and that pig-eyed grin,
Bass mallet socking it to the drum. Lay it down like you know

You know how, shoulders hiked nice and high, chin tipped back,
So the song has to climb its way out like a man from a mine.

–Tracy K. Smith

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Tracy K. Smith has received awards and fellowships from the Rona Jaffe Foundation, the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Whiting Foundation. She teaches creative writing at Princeton University.

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