Saturday, August 20, 2016

History Songs

I've always been a bit of a history nerd, so I've always liked history songs. Besides actual old songs that evoke olden times, there are the modern songs that seek to re-create historical times and places. When I was a boy some of these actually became major hits on AM radio. There was North to Alaska and Battle of New Orleans, both by Johnny Horton (who seemed to specialize in that sort of thing). Later there was The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, which I first heard by Joan Baez, and even The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, by Gordon Lightfoot. Probably the most ambitious example of a history song would be Al Stewart's Roads to Moscow, which kind of blew me away when I first heard it.

Anyway, I've always loved this sort of thing, and it's my favorite rock n' roll band, The Band, that seemed to master the evocation of a particularly American time and place in song after song. So this post is  the first in a series focusing on History Songs. I'm going to concentrate at first on the many such songs by my boys, Robbie, Rick, Levon, Garth, and Richard. The first one to come to mind, from their second album, is "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down."

Levon's singing seems utterly authentic and convincing, and the details of the story, from Stoneman's calvary to the river boat called The Robert E. Lee, leave the impression that you are being told this story by an actual veteran of those days.

One more song from the same album. "King Harvest Has Surely Come." You get this backgrounder at Wikipedia:
The song is credited solely to Robbie Robertson, although Levon Helm claims that "King Harvest" was a group effort.[1] It is sung in first person from the point of view of an unnamed, poverty-stricken farmer who, with increasing desperation, details the misfortune which has befallen him: there was no rain and his crops died, his barn burned down, he has ended up on skid row. A labor union organizer appears, promising to improve things, and the narrator tells his new associates "I'm a union man, now, all the way", but, perhaps ashamed of his station, begs them "just don't judge me by my shoes." The events depicted in the song are most likely a reference to the organizing drives of the Trade Union Unity League which created share-cropper unions from 1928-1935, throughout the U.S. South.Noted rock critic Greil Marcus called it "The Band's song of blasted country hopes" and suggested that "King Harvest" might be Robertson's finest song, and the best example of the group's approach to songwriting and performing.[2] Author Neil Minturn praised its "dark, eerie earnestness."

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