For as long as I can remember, I’ve had this idea in my head, about what I wanted to do with my life. Nothing specific, mind you. I’m not one of those few blessed souls who knew from an early age what they wanted, and in many facets of my life, this has been something of a curse. Recognizing one’s own talents is not the same as recognizing your own passions, unfortunately, and using that passion as fuel for the rigorous process of creation is an altogether different challenge entirely. Since I was about fifteen or so, I knew I wanted to be involved in creating things, and since I was entering college, and the protective shell of adolescence fell away, that desire was whittled down: what I want is to be remembered, for one great moment.
From what I can tell, it’s a common enough sentiment. Everybody, especially those who feel no strong belief in a higher power or afterlife, wants to leave their mark on the world somehow. It may be one of the more selfish motivations for having children. One’s legacy is something that lives on long after you’ve returned to dust, and the firmest way to cement it, in my mind, is to create something that is remembered as being great.
Critics and wannabe-critics alike often judge artists by the bulk of their careers, and while this makes sense from a certain point of view, it also seems unnecessarily nitpicky when it comes to assessing overall greatness. The sports world seems to have a leg up in this regard: nobody in their right mind would ever claim that Michael Jordan’s status as the greatest basketball player (and some would argue, myself included, greatest athlete) of all time was tarnished by his unimpressive stint with the Wizards, or his failed restaurants, or any of his other, post Chicago Bulls accomplishments. All that matters in the world of sports is that at one time, he was the greatest that ever was, and he played with a heart and ferocity that we haven’t seen since.
Last week, Levon Helm, a musician and artist whose talents cannot be overstated, passed away after a battle with cancer. His declining health was only made public by his family a few days before his death. While Helm’s career spans decades, generations, and different groups, I will always remember him for one great moment, that will always live on in my heart: the moment I heard “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” for the first time.
I was at the Hole in the Wall, an old favorite, with several close friends. My buddy Ben, a talented musician himself, fed a few dollars into the jukebox, and tottered back to our table. He informed everybody their in no uncertain terms, that anybody who knew the words had better be ready to sing along. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is one of those songs that passes, by an unequaled measure, my standard for what constitutes a timeless song. If you ever want to know if a song will truly stand the test of time, wait 5-10 years after its initial release, and then find a dive bar with a jukebox, and play that song after midnight on a Friday or Saturday. If more than half the bar sings their way through the entire song, it’s a certifiable classic.
“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” may not be as popular a song as “The Weight”, but it holds a special place in the heart of almost everybody I know who grew up in Texas or the South. I was recently discussing Helm’s passing with a friend of mine (who is from Los Angeles, but spent time in Mississippi with her Southern boyfriend), and she very correctly observed that the song is much like a country version of “Oh, Danny Boy”. Depending on my mood and how many whiskeys I’ve had, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” could move grown men to tears, but it’s a song that taps into a special side of humanity: our universal ability to find strength and joy in moments of incredible sadness. It’s a woefully melancholy song, made all the more despondent by Helm’s powerful, insistent twang. While some may balk at the idea of a song that is, all things considered, a requiem for the Confederate South, a close examination of the lyrics reveals a narrator whose sign does not say “The South Will Rise Again”, but only “Farewell”. Virgil Cane is not a slaveowner, and there is no hatred or even anger in his voice, but only beautiful, bittersweet regret. Helm didn’t write the lyrics, but his incredible vocal performance throws the doors open on a soul laid bare, and anybody, no matter their region or political beliefs, should be able to stop for a moment and revel in the majesty of such plainly expressed grief, pride, and acceptance.
I have often wondered if artists like Levon Helm ever look back at a single moment in their careers, a single contribution, and tell themselves “No matter what else I did wrong in my life, what opportunities I missed, I had this shining moment in which I gave something beautiful to the world”. In my mind, Levon goes to rest as a hero to American music and art in general, if for no other reason, than his telling of Virgil Cane’s story. There were countless other achievements in a long and fulfilling life, but for me, none will ever be equal to the creation of short little song that still has the power to move mountains and rattle the soul.
One great moment is all that any of us are really looking for on this earth. Here’s hoping that we all find it.