RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #158: Helpless by Neil Young.

This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.

RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #158: Helpless by Neil Young.

There is a town in north Ontario,

Dream comfort memory to spare

And in my mind, I still need a place to go,

All my changes were there.”

And so begins Neil Young’s answer to the question, “Where are you from, son?”

To be technically correct, “Helpless” was a song that was first released on an album called “Deja Vu”, which is a Crosby, Still, Nash and Young album. He didn’t officially release “Helpless”, as his own song, until almost seven years later when he released his “Decade” compilation album. To be honest, I have always considered it to be his song (as opposed to CSNY) because it is an homage to the place where he spent much of his childhood.

The town that Neil is referring to is Omeemee, Ontario. Although he was born in Toronto, Neil Young spent his youthful days in Omeemee. Having said that, Omeemee, Ontario is hardly in “north Ontario”. It resides approximately an hour northwest of where I live in Cobourg, which sits on the shores of Lake Ontario. By contrast, my lovely wife, Keri, attended university in Thunder Bay which, by car, is a full eighteen hours away and, even then, it is not the northern-most place one can reach and still be in Ontario. This speaks to the vastness of the land we call, Canada. But, perhaps, back in the early 1970s, when “Helpless” was written, being an hour north of Lake Ontario made Neil feel that he was in “north Ontario”.

Neil Young describes Omeemee as being a small town where all of the kids walked to school on their own and where everyone knew everybody else. He has said that there was a lot of freedom to go anywhere and do anything he wanted in Omeemee because, basically, there was nothing really there so all of the games he played were made up, with imagination being a pre-requisite for fun. But, some of his memories are bittersweet, as well. For instance, he developed polio as a very young child and, actually, spent some time in Florida where his parents believed the warmer climate would be beneficial. It was, also, during his time in Omeemee that his parents divorced; with Neil going to live with his mother, while his father, journalist/writer, Scott Young, continuing to make a national name for himself in Canada. As Neil says in his lyrics, “All my changes were there”.

“Helpless” was a song that filled many Canadians with pride when it was first released. In the late 1960s/early 1970s, we, as Canadians, still measured the success of our singers and movie stars, in terms of their acceptance in America. So, first of all, to have singers like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen and, soon to be, Anne Murray, become stars, in their own right, in America, meant that they had truly made it in our national eyes, too. But, more than that, the fact that Neil Young wrote of Canada and that he sang the words, “north Ontario” to U.S. audiences, was very special to us. The way Young sang “Helpless” almost made Omeemee sound exotic and alluring, in the same manner that some others sang of Kashmir or Marrakech.

One thing about Neil Young is that he is a very generous person. He has voluntarily performed at numerous benefits, such as LiveAid and FarmAid (helping to organize the latter) and has sung “Helpless” at all such events. However, the video that I am going to share comes from a different event which was, the final concert of the group known as “The Band”. Their final concert was made into a movie/documentary called “The Last Waltz” and was filmed by famous director, Martin Scorcese. In this video, Neil Young is introduced as a special guest. He sings “Helpless” along side Robbie Robertson and Rick Danko, with backup accompaniment by Joni Mitchell. Because of the skill of Martin Scorcese with how he shot this song, along with the emotion of the moment among those on stage, this version of “Helpless” has always been my favourite. What a gorgeous rendition this is. Wow! If you have a different version that tickles your fancy, feel free to pop it into the comments below.

For now, please enjoy Neil Young’s ode to Omeemee, Ontario. Here is “Helpless”.

The link to the video for the song, “Helpless” by Neil Young, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Neil Young, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Rolling Stone Magazine, can be found here.

RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #41: The Weight by The Band.

This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.

RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #41: The Weight by The Band.

One of the reasons I started this countdown series was to tell the stories of the meanings behind our favourite songs so that we could bop to those tunes with confidence that we knew what message our song was giving out. For me, I am as guilty as anyone at taking songs at face value. A perfect case in point is the song, “The Weight” by The Band. I have liked The Band for several decades now and have always thought of many of their songs as “story songs”. The Band’s songs were never “Boy-meets-Girl/Boy-loses-Girl” type songs. They are always songs that took me on a little journey inside my imagination. Consequently, I always listened to songs like “The Weight” from a storyteller’s perspective and simply enjoyed the manner in which they told the tale they opted to share. My crime was never really thinking past the lyrics into the symbolism they may have contained. In my mind, “The Weight” always seemed like the story of a traveller who came to a small town. In my mind’s eye, I always pictured that stranger walking into a western saloon and looking for a room and falling in love with the bar maid, all the while meeting the eccentric locals. Well, from what I was able to glean from my research, I was wrong. Not only was I wrong but, I was way off the mark. Apparently, the song is a hymn.

In conducting my research, three main themes were given as to what “The Weight” actually means. First of all, drummer Levon Helm *(Whose name was the inspiration for the Elton John song entitled, “Levon”) stated that the song was simply based on tour stories from their travels as a band and that the characters mentioned were people they knew in real life. There is some credence to this as seen in the fact that Robbie Robertson’s guitar was made in Nazareth, Pennsylvania so, the story of their travels begins where Robertson got his guitar.

I pulled into Nazareth,

feeling bout half past dead.”

The character of Crazy Chester, for example, was a mentally challenged young man who lived in the same town as singer, Ronnie Hawkins. In real life, this young man helped “protect” the town and always reported to Hawkins if he witnessed anything suspicious going on. There are other examples given by Helms that line up the characters in the song with real life people so, because of that, Helms always dismissed the “hymn” angle as being a bunch of nonsense.

The second theory offered up leads us toward the religious but not the full way there. It related to the “Summer of Love” and the trend shown by some musicians toward exploring Eastern philosophies and mysticism. In that light, some theorize that “The Weight”, in question, are our earthly burdens in life and that the whole of Life’s journey is the bearing of burdens for the sake of others, as well as, the relieving of burdens so that others may life more freely and easily. “The Weight”, in other words, is about cosmic harmony and community. The people mentioned in the song all play a role in either the bearing of burdens or the release of them for the narrator, whose life the song is about.

The third version of what this song may be about was put forth by none other than singer, Mavis Staples. As you may know, Mavis Staples was part of the famous Staples Family singers, under the direction of her father, Pops Staples. The Staples Family were known for their passionate singing of Gospel songs. They made a star turn in the documentary, “The Summer of Soul” that is nominated for an Academy Award this year, based upon their performance at the Harlem Cultural Festival in NYC in 1969, just after Woodstock. In any case, Mavis Staples and the Staples Family singers were involved as back up singers in the documentary shot by Martin Scorsese about The Band’s final show called, “The Last Waltz”. “The Weight” was the closing number in that concert. Staples says that singing “The Weight” on stage that night was the closing feeling she has ever had to having a religious experience while on stage. She says that she felt a strong connection to God as The Band sang about looking for room to stay in at Nazareth and onward from there. The Biblical connections run all the way through this song, accordingly to Staples who, to this very day, says that “The Weight” is her favourite song to sing live.

As for me, if “The Weight” is about the Bible story of the birth of the Baby Jesus or, if it is about the Eastern Philosophy of brotherhood and community and inter-connectedness or else, if “The Weight” is about the road stories acquired by the members of The Band as they toured with the likes of Bob Dylan and Ronnie Hawkins, I don’t really care. I still like the song because of the nature of the harmonies and the quality of the storytelling which, to me, will always conjure visions of a western saloon and a barmaid named Anna Lee. Guilty as charged. I like the song without caring for its real meaning. A meaning that may or may not even really exist. But, apparently, it is a hymn of sorts. Who knew? Not me, that is for sure.

So, without further delay, here is one of my favourite sounding songs of all-time, “The Weight” by The Band. What do you think the song is about or do you even care? In any case, for now, let’s all just enjoy this great song. Have a great day, everyone. May your burdens all be light and easily borne.

The link to the video for the song, “The Weight” by The Band, accompanied by The Staples family singers, can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Band, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Rolling Stone Magazine, can be found here.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #272: The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down by The Band.

This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their list, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #272: The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down by The Band.

I can remember watching American Bandstand on tv when I was a young boy growing up. The dancers on that show had a set criteria that they employed when it came to judging the merits of a song. That criteria was that “it had to have a good beat and be easy to dance to”. For a dance-oriented show like American Bandstand, it is no surprise that they leaned toward the type of songs that they did. However, in the grand musical universe, there are many different types of songs and differing ways of assessing them. Usually, there is some level of basic agreement about the nature of most songs; be it a great party song, like, “Shout: Pts. 1 & 2”, a funked-up Soul classic that gets you moving and groovin’ or, maybe the song is a slow, romantic ballad, meant to be shared, cheek to cheek, with that someone special. But, every now and again, a song comes along that defies categorization and resists judgement. An example of such a song is , “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by The Band.

The Band consisted of singer, Robbie Robertson, drummer, Levon Helm, keyboardist, RIchard Manual, multi-instrumentalist, Garth Hudson and bassist, Rick Danko. All but, Helm, were Canadians. Normally, country of origin isn’t a factor in the quality of a song but, in the case of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, it is an essential ingredient in how the song came to be written in the first place. The late 1960s and early 1970s was a time of great awakenings for many people. Television was bringing the world together in ways never before experienced by ordinary people. The Vietnam War caused the attention of the world to shift to a relatively unknown part of the world (at least, to most Americans). For Robbie Robertson, a Canadian, he turned his gaze toward America and desired learning as much about its’ history as he could. So, he started researching about the great US Civil War. During his research, he discovered that many of the people near where Levon Helm grew up (in Arkansas) had been impacted by the actual Civil War, as well as, the aftermath of that war. So, he asked Helm if he could visit his home state. Helm agreed to act as tour guide. Robertson saw battlefields and heard stories of families torn apart because of the death of loved ones and/or the destruction of their properties. Robertson was moved by what he heard and put pen to paper and created a song about the experiences of the US Civil War from the point of view of a Confederate conscript named Virgil. The over-arching theme of the song is one of suffering and regret, on the part of Virgil. The price of war was extremely high for the character of Virgil and the payoff of the fight never seemed to materialize, either.

“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” has been hailed by music critics as being a “musical masterpiece that showed the human side of history better than any song, ever.” There is no questioning the emotion on display when Levon Helm belts this song out. As the sole American in the band, there was never a doubt who would play the part of Virgil. There is a passion in his voice that comes from living the History of which he is singing. When you get to see “The Band” perform the song live, there is, also, no questioning the musicianship on display, the calibre of the writing and storytelling involved in the lyrics nor, the rousing nature of the entire piece. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is a song that plays like an anthem…..and, that is where the contentious nature of judging the merits of a song becomes tricky.

When Robertson wrote the song, he claims to have done so as a show of respect for his bandmate, Levon Helm, and, as an acknowledgement of the suffering Helm’s family had endured those many years ago. Robertson claims that his intentions with “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” were never political. That may be so but, in the aftermath of the song’s release, three very political points of view emerged that all lay claim to the song.

First of all, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” was released in an atmosphere in America that was decidedly anti-war. So, naturally, there were many people who interpreted the song as being an anti-war message from “The Band”. Those who fall into this camp discount the fact that the song focuses on a Confederate soldier and point out that that soldier and his family endured many hardships and lost so much that, surely, the point of the song is that the concept of “War” is a destructive one. The price paid by ordinary citizens conscripted against their will, is far too high. The song must be an ode to peace as the antidote to the devastating nature of war.

A second group that laid claim to the song as being their own were those people who still hold the fervent belief that “the South will, one day, rise again”. To those people, with their Confederate roots, this song is an anthem that speaks to a tragedy that befell their entire culture. The respectful nature of how the character of Virgil is portrayed has served as inspiration to those who feel aggrieved by History’s judgement. There are whole generations who have grown up in the southern United States, for whom, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Sweet Home, Alabama” play like hymns. To them, these are no mere songs to sing and dance to. Instead, they feel as though Robertson peered inside their souls as he crafted his lyrics. Because of this song, many Southerners felt fully and truly seen.

The third group who have weighed in on this song and passed severe judgement are those who view “The Night They Drive Old Dixie Down” as being supportive of a lifestyle and a culture that oppressed generations of blacks via slavery. These people call Robertson and The Band out as “Confederate Apologists”. Some people who fall into this third category have actually taken the lyrics and tweaked them to reflect a less-tolerant and flattering portrayal of the southern Confederacy. The debates rage, even as I write these words.

Is “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” a respectful ode to friendship, as Robertson claims? Is it an anti-war song, a Confederate anthem or a racist piece of music that ignores so many who endured systemic oppression at the hands of those the song intended to glorify?

I guess the answer lay in the nature of our own perceptions. We tend to bring our inherent biases to our own judgements regarding history. When History reveals certain events to be not as we imagined, are we duty-bound to revise our assessments? That is a question that bears examination in Canada, for instance, as we learn more about the horror of Residential Schools and the part that some of the Fathers of our Confederation had to play in that happening. In the U.S., the arguments over the teaching of “Critical Race Theory” in schools remains a topic of much contention at the moment I write these words.

How we end up judging songs steeped in History such as “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ is nebulous. From a purely music point of view, it is a heckuva song and a wonderfully-told story. But, it is almost impossible to keep separate the historical implications from the musical ones when this song stirs up so many conflicting, heartfelt emotions. I guess how you view “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” depends upon your take on the History in question. If you care to make that sort of comment below, go for it.

For now, here is “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by “The Band”, from their famous movie/musical, “The Last Waltz”. Enjoy. Contemplate. Judge, even, if the mood strikes.

The link to the video for the song, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by The Band, can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Band, can be found here.

Thanks, as always, to KEXP for helping to inspire the writing of this post. The link to their website can be found here.