#456: 2007, Levon Helm, Poor Old Dirt Farmer

by George_East on April 30, 2012

Our recent Devon and Cornwall theme Week meant that we missed the opportunity of commemorating the death of the great Levon Helm on 19 April.  As Billy Bragg tweeted on the day that his death was announced Levon Helm was ˜the greatest singing drummer of all time’

If The Band invented what is now known as Americana – the folk music influenced sounds of rural America, it was Levon Helm who gave them much of their authenticity being the only American amongst Canadians.  It is difficult to imagine how the evocative The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down would have worked without the Arkansas drawl of Helm.  It was almost the song I chose for this tribute post.

But instead I decided to go with this fantastic piece of Woody Guthrie-inspired protest folk from Helm’s wonderful comeback solo album – his first for 25 years – Dirt Farmer, released after years of treatment for the throat cancer that would eventually kill him.  The song was written by bluegrass artist, Tracy Schwartz.  Helm’s distinctive tenor country voice has become an almost Dylan-esque rasp, as a result of the radiotherapy but it is no less powerful.

The song tells of a farmer reduced to poverty as a result of not being able to pay the banks back the loans he has taken from them.  A tale as old as the dust bowl but as relevant to the plight of poor farmers of the south today as it was to the Okies of the 1930s. The farmer is left with nothing but dirt and stones on his land for all his hard work.  Even his wife and kids leave him.  Steinbeck is as relevant today as he was back then.   The video features real farmers just about scratching a living.

RIP Levon Helm.

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