Levon Helm is remembered for a number of great songs that have stood the ravages of time. Where others have come and gone, his legacy of great work remains. I believe it is because his songs are more than just musical notes, they are stories that tug at your emotions and history. On October 30, 2007 Levon Helm released an album named Dirt Farmer which consisted of thirteen tracks. It was produced by Larry Campbell and Helm’s daughter Amy. This was the musician’s first album since 1982. Dirt Farmer won the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album in February 2008. Both Campbell and Amy Helm join in performing with Levon on this classic of folk history.
Although there are many great songs on this album, which run like the bayou through a delta field, my favorite is Track Eight titled “A Train Robbery.” It tells the story of Frank and Jesse James. They were outlaws from Missouri who rode into legend after the Civil War. Remembered for over the top robberies, they were known as both heroes and villains. It was a time of great upheaval as the nation looked west after the blood letting from the war when many young Southerners turned to a life of crime for survival.
Levon’s voice had changed because of throat cancer, but his heart and energy remained the same as he unraveled the story of “A Train Robbery.” His words make listeners feel like they are there on that cold night.
” Down in the cut past the old trestle bridge, Twelve fine horses stood, Masked men shivered in the cold on the ridge, Not far from the Gleendale woods”
In 2009 the Levon Helm Band performed on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.” He would sing two songs that night. “A Train Robbery” and “The Weight” The second song came from his time with the legendary group The Band. I love this performance.
‘In long soldier’s coats frayed with the years, Quickly they scrambled aboard, Men were the sweatin’ and the women shed tears, And a preacher cried to the Lord”
Exploring the back roads of Phillips County, Arkansas makes a person envision ghostly riders waiting near a sharp turn. Union and Confederate opponents on the look out for each other. Fires and threats. Fear and anger. I wonder if Levon Helm shared those feelings when he traveled around his home county. I sorta think he did. Part of growing up in the Delta. Walking in history enables us to tell our stories well and Levon Helm did just that with “A Train Robbery.”