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Levon Helm’s Last Waltz

Posted in: General by Henry Lowell Carrigan on April 20, 2012

One still May afternoon in Atlanta in 1978, not long before I headed off to seminary, my friend and I stepped into the cool, dark, and cavernous Rialto Theater. Knowing that this would likely be the last time we’d see each other for a while, Craig, my college friend up from West Palm Beach, and I were celebrating various joys and doing what we loved best—seeing movies and listening to rock and roll. On this afternoon, we got a chance to combine those loves as Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson, and many of their best friends poured out their hearts and souls in The Last Waltz, Martin Scorcese’s affectionate film of The Band’s farewell concert at Bill Graham’s Winterland on Thanksgiving Day, 1976.

We missed the beginning of the movie, though, and walked in just as The Band lit into “It Makes No Difference,” one of their later songs (from the album “Northern Lights-Southern Cross,” released in 1975), but one that showcases them at the height of their powers. In that moment, I felt myself lifted out of the room and transported to that night at Winterland almost two years earlier when for a few hours music created a powerful sense of community and the audience—which had eaten a Thanksgiving meal together before the concert—grew into a family. In that moment, the spiritual power of Rick Danko’s moaning vocals about loss and love were palpable, and for the rest of the concert/movie a throng of musicians—Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Emmylou Harris, Joni Mitchell—paraded across the stage, joining The Band in these moments of celebration and lifting the spiritual aura of the moment higher and higher.

Levon Helm, The Band’s drummer and consummate Americana musician, died today. When I heard the news, I played “It Makes No Difference” and “The Weight” and cried at my desk. Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1998, and he battled back against it so that he was able to perform live and to record several albums. He’d become famous for his midnight rambles at his home in upstate New York, where numerous close friends would gather for a night of music. He took those shows on the road, and he’d just played one in Nashville a couple of months ago.

I’ve been trying to figure out why Helm’s death has hit me so hard.

I recall well the day that I heard about Richard Manuel’s suicide in 1986 and talking about it in the religion and film class in which we had just watched The Last Waltz. In 1999, Rick Danko died, leaving Helm, Robertson, and Hudson as the three remaining members of The Band. I was sad to know Manuel and Danko were gone, but Helm’s death today really grabbed me. Maybe it’s because over the past month or so, we’ve had to say goodbye to so many of our culture’s great musicians—Earl Scruggs, Davy Jones, Dick Clark, Levon Helm—as well as writers like Harry Crews and Lewis Nordan, among others. Just after word of Helm’s death arrived, a friend posted that Chris Etheridge of the Flying Burrito Brothers, is seriously ill and not expected to live. Maybe it’s because the musicians that created the music that once held us together through war protests and political rallies are now really fading away out of our lives and that mortality arrives now too close for comfort. Maybe it’s simply because I can’t believe that kind, generous, loving, mischievous Levon Helm won’t be singing us any more songs.

I came straight home this evening, after listening to as many of The Band’s songs as I have recorded on my mobile phone, and grabbed The Last Waltz and popped it into the DVD player. Damn, look at those guys, I thought; look how young Scorcese is in those interviews; look at Robertson, Danko, and Neil Young gathered around the mike singing “Helpless”; look at Emmylou, with that gorgeous waist-length hair and her songbird voice, and with Levon playing mandolin on “Evangeline.” Then, the movie took me out of myself again to the place where I became one with the music and the moment, now so long gone but made alive again by film. I watched and listened to Levon shout it out on “Cripple Creek” and that wonderfully humorous moment at the end of the song where he shouts out “I really I wish I could yodel.” Although every member of The Band takes turns on “The Weight,” Levon starts it off. Scorcese doesn’t feature Levon much in the interviews that cut between the concert footage, but when he gets on camera, he’s a trickster, a jokester, and a music historian; in one scene, he tells us about the origins of the “midnight ramble” in the South; after midnight, when the families had gone home from the traveling music shows, the musicians would play their best songs and the prettiest girls would dance. For those two hours tonight, I cried a little more, sang along, and let the music and spirit of Levon Helm carry me away.

Watching The Last Waltz is a fitting tribute to Levon Helm, but watching the movie again tonight helped underscore its greatness—I’ve always said that it’s the greatest documentary made about rock music, though I’m sure others will contest that—and its firmly theological character. As I said, I’ve often used it my religion and film classes, usually not the entire film but certain scenes that capture themes of community and transcendence. There are very obvious ways that you can read this as a multi-layered religious film: the lines of “congregants” stretched around the block, waiting to get into the church (Winterland) for the worship service in which a number of priests, from The Band to Dylan, lead the assembled worshippers in celebration that takes them out of themselves and into the love of others and the world. Yet, this stretches images and symbols a good ways and is a little forced.

Still, I noticed tonight, though, that about halfway through the film, Garth Hudson talks about the real priests on 52nd Street in New York being the musicians; they’re the ones, he said, who had the power of healing and who had found a way to punch through the sufferings of everyday life to cure the soul. After this scene, the film cuts to Levon singing “Ophelia,” a song about lost love that ends with the singer waiting for the “second coming” of Ophelia. Not long after, Van Morrison performs a rousing call and response version of “Caravan,” a song about the power of music and the transcendence—the journey out of oneself that occurs when you “turn on the radio.” Finally, the concert ends with what has to be one of the most inspiring scenes in concert film history with all of the musicians joining The Band to sing along with Dylan’s song, best-known in The Band’s version, “I Shall Be Released.” In that moment, the spiritual power of the song about despair, loss, redemption, and release echoes loudly through the song’s lyrics but is also palpable in the love, closeness, and passion on the stage. It’s a moment of transcendence.

Yet, the most stunning moment in the movie—and I’d never noticed it before—occurs at the end of “The Weight.” The Band is joined onstage by The Staples Singers (it’s pretty cool that country singer Marty Stuart and Mavis Staples have recorded a version of “The Weight” now playing on some country stations) for a gospel-like version of the song. At the very end, after the guitars strings stop humming, Mavis softly utters the word “beautiful.” Her hushed reverence captures the mood of the entire movie, but it also describes the life and music of our friend, Levon Helm. We’ll miss him.
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.



  1. Wonderful tribute Henry – I certainly sound an “Amen” over and over. “The Last Waltz” really does stand out as a profound testimony to what a rock documentary can (and should) be and its theological resounance is certainly worth lifting up. Thanks for posting a fitting remembrance and I am with you in watching “The Last Waltz” yet again… priceless…

    Comment by Jeff Keuss — April 20, 2012 @ 1:04 pm

  2. Henry
    You captured what the film, the Band,and the drummer mean/meant for so many of us back in the day and today/forever.



    Comment by John mintier — April 20, 2012 @ 7:56 pm

  3. Thanks for writing this beautiful eulogy — and the analogy is profound.

    Comment by margo — April 20, 2012 @ 10:27 pm

  4. Great post, Henry. I’ve never seen “The Last Waltz” but after reading your wonderful tribute I’m going to watch it.

    Comment by Mary McDonough — April 21, 2012 @ 10:13 am

  5. well said. and “The Weight” begins in Nazareth, right? Hmmmm. after enduring a tour of boos for backing Dylan with rock, it’s time for the Band to be given its due, musically. note the credits that read “dylan, danko” or “dylan, manuel” on some great songs. on the weight and “night they drove old dixie down,” Helms’s vocals carried them off.

    Comment by phil — April 22, 2012 @ 5:09 pm

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