Sixty miles or so south of Memphis, just across the river from Lula, MS (near Vicksburg), sits Helena, Arkansas--river port town in cotton growing country rising up from the muddy riverbank to the top of Crowley's Ridge and down again on the other side into West Helena. The elevation, a rare topographical feature in this river delta country, made Helena an area of strategic importance during the Civil War, when it was occupied by the Union army.
On July 4, 1863 Lt. Gen. Theophilus H. Holmes, commander of the Confederate District of Arkansas led an attack on the heavily fortified Union positions around Helena in an attempt to weaken the support positions for the ongoing Union siege at Vicksburg. In every way it was a futile charge with the Confederate cavalry taking heavy casualties from the Union heavy guns (1600 rebel dead to 200 union); worse still, the charge came just as Confederate forces were surrendering to Ulysses Grant at Vicksburg.
There's no doubt you can hear Helena--like a child listening for the sound of the ocean in an empty conch shell--in the voice of Levon Helm (born in nearby Marvell in 1942) singing Robbie Robertson's brilliant evocation of southern pride and shame, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." In Helm's music you can hear not only the haunted soul of the old south, but also the echoes of specific sounds--the hoot of Sonny Boy Williamson II (aka Rice Miller), who played blues harp on a 15-minute midday show sponsored by King Biscuit Flour at Helena's 250-watt local radio station KFFA (little Levon, when he took trips into town with his Dad, would scramble down to the KFFA studios to watch Williamson and the King Biscuit boys perform); the confident, sexy sneer of Elvis Presley, who 13-year-old Levon watched perform at the nearby Marianna High School gym in 1955; the bump and grind of the midnight rambles Levon would stay out late to watch at the medicine shows that rolled into the outskirts of town on the back of flatbed trucks; the high lonesome sound of weekend family front porch singalongs led by Jasper "Diamond" Helm playing guitar when the hard sharecropper's work of planting and picking cotton was done (or of Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys, whom Diamond took his six-year-old son to see in 1948).
Music-making is a guild craft, its secrets passed along by direct transmission, and Helm is one of the last living links in a chain that runs from Helena juke joints to the Woodstock festival to Madison Square Garden. One of rock's greatest drummers--a subtle, dancing timekeeper whose skittish beats and woody thumping tone defined the sound of The Band, and, by extension, Americana roots rock--and one of rock's most expressive singers, Helm is in the middle of a late career renaissance, regaining a measure of his voice after his vocal chords were damaged by throat cancer a decade ago.
That resurgence began in 2007 when, at the urging of his daughter Amy (who sings with him) and under the auspices of former Bob Dylan guitarist Larry Campbell, Helm made the excellent Dirt Farmer album--a collection of mostly old time traditional material including "Little Birds" a song Diamond Helm used to sing at family singalongs--which won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album.
As good as Dirt Farmer was, the follow up, Electric Dirt, released last month by Vanguard Records, might be even better. There's no strictly traditional material in the repertoire. It's pulled instead from the work of Helm's heroes like Muddy Waters, Pops Staples, and Carter Stanley, as well as other contemporary songwriters like Randy Newman. If Helm's voice is thinner and more crackling than it was pre-cancer, it hardly robs the music of expressiveness. The sound of the Helm band--with Campbell still producing and playing multiple instruments--remains heavy on old time sonorities--high lonesome harmonies, accordions, fiddles and mandolins--but expanded now too on a few tunes (including a great version of the Dead's "Tennessee Jed") by horns, arranged in a few places by the great New Orleans writer-producer Allen Toussaint, who wrote arrangements for The Band's live album Rock of Ages. If "Tennessee Jed" is the album's novelty ringer, it's centerpiece and by far it's best song, is the only Helm original (co-written with Campbell), "Growin' Trade" a story song about the demise of the family farm that approaches that well worn theme with a knowingness and depth of transmitted experience that only Helm can bring.
Levon Helm remains the real deal and in an era when a direct connection with that weird old America is fast receding into history, Electric Dirt is a little treasure.