AIN’T NO MORE ‘CANE: Levon Helm, The Basement Tapes and American Roots Music.

“You should’a been on the river in
nineteen and ten.
They were drivin’ the women
just like they drove the men . . .”

“Ain’t No More ‘Cane,” is The Band’s version of a kind of song that was a precursor to the blues, a field chant for those enslaved or otherwise bound with the land in mutual harsh existence; a hymn for the workers and the land.  It is a song of the emotional and spiritual triumph of those who refuse to believe that their lives, grim as they may be, are without hope. A secular gospel music, as contradictory as that may sound, is perhaps the best definition.

It is a song I hear in my head every time I see or hear the name Levon Helm, and it was the first thing to enter my mind after I absorbed the not unexpected news this past Thursday that he had died.

Helm sang only the opening verse and in the chorus to “Ain’t No More ‘Cane,” but it is his voice that dominates the entire song.  Not by volume, but by weight, wisdom and wry humor, three characteristics that define not only his voice, but seemingly the man.  How else could a man born after the Great Depression sing in 1967 so convincingly of a time and of lives so removed from our own.  Undoubtedly, he grew up with a tradition kept alive through music, a tradition and a life few of us born more than a thousand miles of a cotton or sugarcane plantation or field could possibly know.  Except through the music of Levon Helm and those few like him.

When he sang that first verse, you not only believed he had seen what he was describing in “nineteen and ten,” but you could imagine it yourself, though far removed from that time and place.  To me, it is the essence of what popular music is and should be.  Yet few if any today would refer to it that way, nor would have anyone in 1967 — or in 1910.

Pop music serves as its primary purpose, in my mind, to define its times, to share what life is in that particular place and time.  It is not essential for it to transcend its own time — if it shares a description of what human existence is among the people of that time, it has served its purpose, and has achieved a basic goal of art.  It is popular art.  But if it transcends its time by touching a spiritual nerve, so to speak, that all humans throughout all time share, whether its creator intended it or not, it becomes by definition a true and lasting work of art.

Helm created that art through his voice, his music, his ability to take song and verse from a remote time and place and give it to us in a form that transcends its origins and makes it meaningful here and now.

“Ain’t no more ‘cane
on the ‘rizon.
It’s all been ground
down
to molasses . . .”

How could words so plain, so banal, transcend even so small a thing as the moment in which they are sung?  Helm’s vocal has that unforgettable feeling of wisdom gathered by age and experience, leavened with good humor — he is singing to both his Band and to us, and he enjoys sharing those feelings and that experience.  And he does it within a musical context that stays true to the music’s simple origins.   The drumming spare but solid, with bass, guitar and mandolin barely underpinning the vocals and, the most pervasive individual element aside from the vocals, an accordion simultaneously bluesy and cheerful, haunting yet exuberant — as evocative as the instrument can sound.

After the last verse and chorus, Helm, in a friendly growl, says to his mates “Yeah!”  As if to say, “good work, boys!”  As it fades, the song returns to its roots as the chant of field laborers, with Garth Hudson’s plaintive accordion in place of their voices.  Helm’s voice, as with those of mates Richard Manuel and Rick Danko, may now be stilled, but never gone.

* * *

‘Aint No More ‘Cane,” appeared for the first (and only) time on The Basement Tapes, a collection of roots music recorded in 1967 in upstate New York by The Band and Bob Dylan, who was taking a time-out after too much touring, too many uppers and one too many motorcycle rides.  In a home recording studio in Woodstock, NY, Dylan and The Band recorded scores of songs, dozens of which surfaced in the form of bootlegs of the tapes intended for Dylan’s music publisher.

It may be difficult for many today to grasp, but Bob Dylan was by 1967 a legendary, if not exactly mythical figure.   A lot of more than slightly misguided young people thought he held the key to the meaning of existence.  Substance abuse serves only as a partial explanation.  Clearly, a lot of people were searching, desperately, for something or someone to explain the seemingly inexplicable times in which they were living.  Bob Dylan, much to his chagrin, was IT.  After a year’s silence since his monumental last work, the double album, Blonde on Blonde, many of the searchers and seekers were either feeling abandoned or beginning to doubt their keymaster still lived, or ever existed in the first place (and the Dylan of their imaginations clearly never did).

The bootlegs of the home recordings Dylan and his Band made were sold and purchased illegally by millions of fans.  Other musicians recorded them (after licensing the rights from Dylan’s publisher and paying Dylan and Columbia Records the appropriate royalties, of course).  Some of these songs became hits and/or classics of sorts years before Dylan got around to releasing or re-recording (if ever) his own versions — “This Wheel’s On Fire,” “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” “Nothing Was Delivered” (all of which were covered by the Byrds, the last two were the first and last tracks on their 1968 country rock landmark with Gram Parsons, Sweetheart of the Rodeo), “I Shall Be Released,” “The Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo),” and more were hits for people other than Dylan.  The more cynical times in which we live might presume that it was all a crafty, cagey marketing maneuver, and maybe it was, but with Dylan remaining underground until 1969, it was all that kept hope alive for the faithful deluded hardcore fans.

The Basement Tapes did not receive an official release until 1975, not coincidentally during a period in which Dylan was creating his first big career revival, though that isn’t what it they called it then — it was more like “His second coming.”  He had never really left and had made a handful of mediocre albums since the dawn of the seventies.  He was touring extensively (and profitably) for the first time in ten years on the heels of his best album (according to most critics, anyway) since the 1966 Blonde on Blonde, Blood on the Tracks.  With its vituperative opening track, “Idiot Wind,” Dylan was to my mind describing his bootleggers and fans and sycophantic critics of the present as much as the politicians, bigots, record executives, rivals and girlfriends of his past.

There are many, including myself, who believe that Blonde on Blonde is, as whole, Dylan’s best single work.  There are a few, again including myself, who feel that The Basement Tapes is very close to, if not quite, its equal.  If Dylan had been interested in the official release project, rather than handing it off to Robbie Robertson of The Band, he might have compiled something that was superior to his prior best work.  But a lot of people who feel that way are those who wanted to see an all-Dylan Basement Tapes, one without the songs included by Robertson on the official release, songs that weren’t part of the original 1967 sessions, but were recorded later, possibly intended originally for inclusion on The Band’s first official release in 1968.  (Ironically, Levon Helm was not part of the recording sessions that produced the original Basement Tapes, but features prominently on some of the later recordings by The Band added to the official release.)

Two of the songs added by Robertson, “Ain’t No More ‘Cane” and “Katie’s Been Gone,” the latter with a heartbreaking, plaintive vocal by Richard Manuel, are, in my opinion, the number one and two highlights of the “official” Basement Tapes.  None of the songs by Dylan that had been left off the 1975 release are their equal, though a couple are close.

Which brings me back to one of those qualities that Levon Helm showed in his best work.  That sense of wry humor that underlies the music of both The Band and, especially, Bob Dylan.  In my mind, Dylan is at his worst as the humorless protester of “Masters of War,” or “The Ballad of Medgar Evers.”  Sanctimonious and preachy are unbecoming even for a keymaster.  And the clever wordplay of Blonde on Blonde would become tedious without the underlying or contrasting humor found throughout the work.  A prime example from that record is “Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine,” in which Dylan begins with what seems to be the lament of a confused lover, but the lyric soon turns silly, surreal, then outright hilarious:

“Well the Judge,
he holds a grudge —
he’s gonna call on you.

But he’s badly built
and he walks on stilts
watch out he don’t
fall on you!”

More often, otherwise serious lyrics on Blonde on Blonde are shaded with a more subtle humor as in another song with a similar theme, “I Want You:”

“The guilty undertaker sighs,
the lonesome organ grinder cries,
the silver saxophones say I
should refuse you.

The cracked bells
and washed-out horns
blew into my face
with scorn,
it’s not that way —
I wasn’t born
to lose you.”

Humor is his forte, and it is never on display better than in The Basement Tapes.  The official release version and many of the bootlegs, most calling themselves “The GEN-U-WINE Basement Tapes,” begin with “Odd and Ends,” a track that sets the tone for the entire set as Dylan sings a tune that is lyrically a hybrid of the two earlier songs quoted above:

Well, I stand in awe and I
shake my face
You break your promise
all over the place
You promise to love me
but what do I see?
Just you comin’ in
spillin’ juice over me.

The song ends each verse with a half-serious – half mocking mantra:

“Odds and ends,
odds and ends,
lost time is not found again.”

It is a tease of those who hang on his every word searching for that key.  The next Dylan number is one the funniest things I’ve ever heard on tape, vinyl or digital media.  Dylan takes a classic American art form, the “nonsense song,” and reinvents it as his own, “Million Dollar Bash,”a song about a country barnyard carnival where the attendees are every bit as weird as the show:

“Everybody from right now
to over there and back,
the louder they come
the bigger they crack.
Come,  now, sweet cream
don’t forget to flash —
we’re all gonna meet
at that Million Dollar Bash.

and they only get weirder:

“Well, I looked at my watch
I looked at my wrist
I punched myself
in the face
with my fist
I took my potatoes
down to be mashed
and then I made it on over to that
Million Dollar Bash!”

Even stranger, if not quite as funny or lighthearted, are several others that could fit into the broad category of nonsense song, though some are mixed with seemingly ponderous lyrics that are oddly Zappa-esque, or tinged with psychedelia as is “Too Much of Nothing,” a song that seems prescient now, and more relevant in 2012 than 1967:

“Too much of nothing
can make a man ill at ease.
One man’s temper rises
where another man’s temper
might freeze.

Now it’s that day of confession
and we cannot mock a soul,
but when there’s
too much of nothing
no one has control!”

But as if to deflate any pretension, the nonsense factor shifts into high gear.  As each verse reaches its climax, Garth Hudson’s organ accompaniment reaches a crescendo and performs psychedelic somersaults, to which the chorus warbles crazily:

“Say hello to Valerie,
say hello to Vivian.
Give her all my salary
on the waters of
Oblivion.”

Valerie” and “salary?”  “Vivian” and “oblivion?”  Who but Dylan would have the nerve to try that, and who else could pull it off?  I could go on for days with the remainder of The Basement Tapes and I’ve only scratched the surface here, but any further discussion of The Basement Tapes is best left to the writings of Greil Marcus, who composed the wonderful liner notes (remember those?) to the original LP release in which he expounds on what he calls music of an “old, weird America.”  Marcus also wrote an entire book on The Basement Tapes called, Invisible Republic.  I haven’t read it, but those who are familiar with the recordings may have a further interest in the book.

Another book, one that I have read that I can say first-hand is excellent, though a bit deep into its subject matter for the casual fan, is The Land Where the Blues Began, by Alan Lomax (Delta/Dell Publishing, 1993), the late American roots musicologist who began to record many legendary blues giants in their homes and haunts, first with his father John Lomax in the 1930s, then later as part of a Smithsonian Institute program in the 1940s and 50s.  Alan continued for most of his life to document the dying folk music culture of rural southern America before it was gone.  Many of these recordings were released on vinyl in the 50s and 60s, and more recently rereleased in multiple CD sets.  In The Land Where the Blues Began, you’ll find the genesis of “Ain’t No More ‘Cain” —  verses to that song can be found scattered throughout the field hollers, prison laments and songs of life on the rivers and levees of the deep south.

Fortunately for people who care about this music, we have had the Lomax’s to both preserve and give us an understanding of the originals, and musicians such as Bob Dylan and Levon Helm to interpret them for new generations and generations to come.

* * *

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About Gene Zonarich

I'm the King of the silent pictures -- I'm hidin' out 'til talkies blow over . . .
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6 Responses to AIN’T NO MORE ‘CANE: Levon Helm, The Basement Tapes and American Roots Music.

  1. Lambton says:

    The Band performed Ain’t No More ‘Cane at Woodstock. It is the only song in which all four singers took a verse each.

  2. Peter F. says:

    Is the version released on the 1975 basement tapes available elsewhere? it’s not in “bootleg series vol. 11,” it’s not on any of the Capitol CD reissues of The Band’s catalog, it’s not in the “Across the Great Divide” collection.

    • Don’t know, Peter. Not surprised that “Ain’t No More Cane” isn’t on “Bootleg series Vol. 11” as it wasn’t recorded in the original “Basement Tapes” sessions.

  3. skim911 says:

    Is the version of “Ain’t No More Cane” from the 1975 Basement Tapes available on CD? It’s not on Dylan’s Bootleg Series vol. 11, it’s not on any of the Capitol CD’s reissuing The Band’s catalog, it’s not in the Across the Great Divide boxset. I don’t want to purchase the CD reissue of the 1975 release just for this song!

    • Sorry, I don’t know if this version of the song is available elsewhere. I think it’s worth the price of the 1975 “Tapes” release CD by itself, but that’s just my opinion!

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