by Charlotte Pence
From Fall 2018
There were no rules. And it just felt right.
—Levon Helm from the film The Band
I have been researching The Band in preparation for my essay on this foundational, classification-resistant, Canadian-American group. In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked them #50 on its list of greatest artists of all time. A quick sweep of just a few of their honors include the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and inductions into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. My college students know them best as that group that backed Bob Dylan, but they didn’t back Dylan so much as they collaborated with him. They were, and have always been, their own thing.
As I’m listening to The Band, I am also prepping for my graduate creative-writing class focused on different strategies for the “I” in poetry, nonfiction, and fiction. We are reading James Baldwin’s classic “Sonny’s Blues” about two brothers’ response to institutionalized and individual racism in 1950s Harlem. The nameless narrator in this first-person story and his brother Sonny choose different paths: the narrator serves in the military so that he can attend college and becomes a math teacher, diligently taking the slow rungs up that American boot-strap ladder. Sonny, however, goes the route of jazz and heroin. Both choices take the brothers to the same spot: a project in Harlem, living together and having to deal with the world and its faults. Whereas the narrator’s rage manifests as a concealed “great block of ice” that “got settled in my belly and kept melting there slowly,” Sonny uses his music to openly confront his despair.
While reading the story, a quote about music stops me cold:
All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air.
At that moment, I realize I am that listener. I have never really heard the deadening-finality of the bass drum’s beat before the lines: “I pulled into Nazareth, was feeling ‘bout half-past dead;” I have never really heard the acceptance of loss in the finger-picking opening of “Atlantic City;” I have never really heard The Band.
In the Baldwin story, lack of sound equals a lack of life. Simply put, silence=death. The story also suggests that people can be alive yet dead emotionally, unable to hear what is happening around them. I first noticed the use of sound when the narrator describes his daughter’s death from polio. The mother, Isabel, had been tending to their ill daughter when she fell, unable to breathe: “…Isabel says that when she heard that thump and then that silence, something happened in her to make her afraid.”
Silence, however, is removed at the story’s end when the narrator finally understands why it is his brother plays. The narrator, like many at that time, feared what jazz would mean for his brother. What the life of jazz would mean. Garth Hudson from The Band put it this way in The Last Waltz in 1978: “There is a view that jazz is ‘evil’ because it comes from evil people, but actually the greatest priests on 52nd street, and on the streets of New York City, were the musicians. They were doing the greatest healing work. And they knew how to punch through music, which would cure and make people feel good.” Sonny, in “Sonny’s Blues,” was doing just that: healing others and himself. Music was providing a way to fight death. It is and was a stay against oblivion.
One of The Band’s most famous persona songs, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” is a stay against oblivion. An attempt to remember a region as it will never be again.
To be honest, the song about the last days of the Civil War makes me uncomfortable. I struggle to see that war as anything other than one group that was for the evil machine slavery, and one group that was against it. People tell me it is more complicated than that, and I’m sure they’re right. Still, I struggle to feel sympathy for those who view the South’s loss as the end of something wonderful. It was the end of an era, certainly, but an era that existed on the whip-welted black backs of others. I have been surprised that others aren’t more uncomfortable with this song and view it as an extension of supporting institutional racism. In a lot of ways, I don’t want to listen to this song’s speaker. I feel like the narrator in “Sonny’s Blues,” when a friend of his brother’s, a heroin user and panhandler, approaches him: “Look. Don’t tell me your sad story, if it was up to me, I’d give you one.”
But two aspects to the song make me listen, and keep listening. The first pull of the song is the separation between the singer and the speaker in the first line: “Virgil Caine is the name, and I served on the Danville train.” Immediately, the singer distinguishes himself from the speaker with the proper noun of Virgil Caine with its short I’s and long A’s, all of which create a twangy assertion of self and region. The other aspect to this song that impresses me is the song’s authenticity. Even though I know intellectually that the character is fictional, I feel as if Virgil Caine is by my side, chopping wood with calloused hands and attempting to communicate to me his side as a poor, white southerner: a sense of failure. The two ideas of authenticity and separation work in harmony and build toward that chorus between Levon, Richard, and Rick that ring out like the mournful bell that it is.
And in that lonesome chorus, in that elongation of the word “night” with the long “I” insisting that I listen, I feel something that intellectually I don’t want to feel: empathy for the suffering of the protagonist. I feel the sense of frustration of the train tracks being torn up—again––and the sense of destitution that comes from the line: “In the winter of ’65, we were hungry, just barely alive.” I see the soldiers as what they were: another group of people being caught up and used up in this awful enterprise. In the powerful chorus that is sung with energy rather than timidity, the depth of the sorrow comes out. “The night they drove ol’ Dixie down / and the bells were ringing,” followed by that weird la-la-la that sounds all at once mocking, mournful, and majestic. And it is. Finally, through the sounds of the chorus, I get what intellectually I have trouble understanding. Not only did the Confederacy lose the war, but they lost a sense of identity, honor, and beliefs about their place in the world—not to mention the daily struggles regarding loss of family, friends, homes, and income. As Virgil Caine explains: “Ya’ take what ya’ need and ya’ leave the rest / But they should never have taken the very best.”
I am supposed to be writing on The Band’s use of persona, and so I will write on persona. It is:
A false face.
An ancient distinction.
We know the term, but we stumble if asked to give a definition because all the definitions somehow sound slightly off.
According to J.A. Cuddon in A Dictionary of Literary Terms, the term derives from the dramatis personae and denotes “the ‘person’ (the ‘I’ of an ‘alter ego’) who speaks in a poem or novel or other form of literature.” It’s the type of definition that clouds more than clears. So, we try again.
A social role.
A personality projected in public.
It is supposed to be decidedly not the writer, but perhaps what trips us up is the question: who is the writer to begin with? Which self is the writer writing with that day? Essentially, definitions with persona feel inadequate because self-identity is forever inadequate and continually in flux.
Still we need some facts, something conclusive, which lists can provide. Famous personas include the Duke in Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” Virgil Caine of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” Eminem’s Slim Shady, the truck driver of “Up on Cripple Creek,” Gulliver of Gulliver’s Travels, the farmer of “King Harvest (Has Surely Come).” Fiction writing, as opposed to songs and poems, use persona most of the time, but in that genre, it’s simply a character like the well-known Humbert Humbert in Lolita.
The act of awareness seems key to the definition of persona. For example, the writer needs to be aware that he/she is creating a persona different from one’s self for the persona to be considered a persona.
In my graduate class, we have talked extensively about how a successful use of persona is determined by three things:
1) The distinction between writer and persona—and how quickly and clearly the author makes it.
2) How authentic the persona feels.
3) The writer remaining, somehow, a player in the drama. The best writers of persona cannily mine the relationship between the writer, the speaker of the text, and the reader.
The last point is a tricky one, especially for a fiction writer. How do they remain players in their first-person dramas? In other words, what is the role of the creator within the creation? As James Joyce explains so well: “The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” In “Sonny’s Blues,” the narrator is not Baldwin, yet the story feels true, especially with its locale of Harlem, home to Baldwin and the narrator. And that feeling of truth, of authenticity, is key to a compelling listening or reading experience.
Baldwin’s novel Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), however, is known for his blending of the narrator with the author. Fiction writers call this “autobiographical fiction.” The bookfocuses on a young man growing up in Harlem grappling with his father, religion, sexuality, and race. Baldwin later said that “Mountain is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else. I had to deal with what hurt me most. I had to deal, above all, with my father.”
An old interview from The New York Times in 1979 with Baldwin feels quite relevant to today. The questions reveal assumptions and challenges writers of color face. Baldwin, however, rises above everyone’s epoch. The interviewer summarizes that Baldwin’s “fiction has often been attacked, notably by younger black writers in the 1960’s, as too personal, too patently a working‐out of inner conflict at the price of distorting the realities of race and racial conflict in America.”
One exchange is especially worth quoting:
Q. You feel, then, that the writer should become involved, that his work should reflect his involvement?
A. I certainly can’t imagine art for art’s sake … that’s a European approach, which never made any sense to me. I think what you have to do, which is the difficult thing about a writer, is avoid slogans. You have to have the [guts] to protest the slogan, no matter how noble it may sound. It always hides something else; the writer should try to expose what it hides.
Sometimes when I’m listening to The Band, I sense that their songs are trying to pull certain people—or impulses—out of hiding. Take “Up on Cripple Creek,” for instance, The Band’s fifth song on their second album. The Hohner clavinet being played with a wah-wah peddle helps give this song a fun, feel-good-feel. (And it does what The Band does so well: mixing influences from funk, roots, bluegrass, and country.) Yet, at the center of this light-hearted song about a truck driver visiting a young woman in her town of Lake Charles, Louisiana, are some darker elements: a man bored with his life who finds enjoyment via distraction. Whatever Bessie provides with her “doughnut in [his] tea” isn’t going to be permanent. And then there is the question of the speaker’s fidelity. Is he cheating on his wife with Bessie?
So I guess I’ll call up my big mama
Tell her I’ll be rolling in
But you know, deep down, I’m kinda tempted
To go and see my sweet Bessie again.
Many have wondered who this “big mama” is. The speaker’s wife? Others suggest that Big Mama could be the affectionate nickname truck drivers give the dispatcher over the CB radio.
Robbie Robertson, smart man that he is, hasn’t denied or affirmed if the speaker in this persona song is committing adultery. When asked about this in an interview with Bill Janovitz, he focused on this idea of revealing what is hidden:
We’re not dealing with people at the top of the ladder; we’re saying what about that house out there in the middle of the field? What does this guy think, with that one light on upstairs, and that truck parked out there? That’s who I’m curious about…. Just following him with a camera is really what this song’s about.
The goal of the song then, according to Robertson, is not to judge but to reveal. The role of the songwriter is simply to see what is there, record it, and fade into the background.
What strikes me about this song is a quality of authenticity. When I’m listening to it, I feel like I’m listening to the unedited thoughts in this trucker’s mind. Much outward conversation about affairs veer toward confession or repentance. But in this song, there is none of that. Instead, we have the living vibrations why someone might commit adultery: escapism, support, and entertainment. This direct chorus cuts through all apologies and explains the trucker’s attraction to Bessie: “If I spring a leak she mends me. / I don’t have to speak she defends me. / A drunkard’s dream if I ever did see one.” Even with that last line, the speaker tosses out alcoholism without the usual condemnation. Here, in this moment of the song, the listener and the speaker both engage in something duplicitous—and enjoy it.
If this song were identifiably one of the singers, I don’t think the listener would be able to tap his feet to the beat in the same way. The distinction between the singer and speaker (since it’s clear The Band is not a group of truck drivers) allows a certain emotional distance for everyone involved. We know this song is made up. But at the same time, it feels real, as if we have entered that unmade bed in the house out in the middle of the field with a rig in the drive.
Ultimately, what persona provides the writer—and as such the reader—is a lack of commitment. This mask the writer dons allows him/her to say things that otherwise might be considered taboo, impolitic, or thorny. In other words, the mask serves more as a cloak of artistic detachment. And this detachment, this shout out to the reader that what is being created is made up, allows both reader and writer to explore alternative perspectives without committing to them. While the persona is a means to explore the self, “it prevents the poet from being hurt by self-exposure or being led astray by the limitations of her own vision; it is a means for expressing anxieties and frustrations…”
One aspect about The Band’s use of persona that fascinates me is how they define themselves within a world of persona. Other than Levon Helm, the talented group is from Canada—not the roots and ruggedness of the South that their lyrics embody. What’s more, each musician is an expert at more than one instrument, allowing a fluidity of roles amongst the players, just as their songs allow a fluidity of personas. (Supposedly, the guy credited with forming The Band, Ronnie Hawkins, competed with other groups in town by poaching their best musicians.) In one of the many paradoxes of persona, the multiple masks their individual songs occupy allow a collective persona for The Band as a group that is as hard-scrabble and home-grown as their dramatis personae.
This sense of role-playing, though, is a complicated one, according to psychologists who see persona as a conduit between the conscious and unconscious parts of the psyche. As the editors of The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics explain, “Jung opposed the persona, the self a person assumes in order to play a social role, to the anima, a person’s true inner being.” The idea of the self is complicated because the self does not remain static. Hence, the spate of terms that follow: “the inner and outer; the hidden and the overt; the individual and the social; reality and appearance; the authentic and the put-on; the true self and the persona.” Despite the ever-shifting quicksand of identity concepts, behavioral psychologists value the importance of role-playing for personal growth and for public situations.
However questionable any sense of the true self might be, one thing is clear. The personas The Band creates help to define them—while simultaneously differentiating them from their creations. The Band is not the Confederate sympathizer Virgil Kane. The Band is not the adulterous, bored truck driver. The Band is not the farmer suckered by the Union.
Yet, the Band, in their compassion with these characters and the wholeness with which they created them, sometimes employing research to better understand a time or place, became a part of these personas. Some theorists maintain that a poet’s role, and a songwriter’s role, is ultimately to attempt to resolve an identity crisis. And readers are invited in to tease out questions of authenticity and separation. And somehow, through all these conversations about lines between selves, a whole emerges.
A passage in “Sonny’s Blues” addresses what it is that singers, good singers, can do. Sonny has just returned from an errand and passes by a small group singing on a street corner. “The revival was being carried on by three sisters in black, and a brother. All they had were their voices and their Bibles and a tambourine,” which will soon turn into a collection plate. He tells his brother: “. . . Listening to that woman sing, it struck me all of a sudden how much suffering she must have had to go through—to sing like that. It’s repulsive to think you have to suffer that much.” Suffering, though, is a necessary part of this connection between the singer and the listener. When else do we allow ourselves to sit and experience whatever it is the person before us wants us to experience? A singer, though, like a preacher or a poet, possesses a unique privilege that society refuses to grant many people—and that privilege is a passage into the listener’s internal psyche, which is often guarded by Cerberus and Saint Peter both.
The narrator describes it this way: “As the singing filled the air the watching, listening faces underwent a change, the eyes focusing on something within; the music seemed to soothe a poison out of them; and time seemed, nearly, to fall away from the sullen, belligerent, battered faces, as though they were fleeing back to their first condition, while dreaming of their last.”
A healing has emerged on this street corner, a healing that can emerge from the fractured pieces of identity the bard chooses to present. The true self and the assumed mask interact and inform each other to perform a type of public healing.
One of The Band’s most remarkable songs for its use of persona is “King Harvest (Has Surely Come).” In this song, the listener experiences a rare occurrence, but an important one: the skillful emergence of the writer into the dramatic monologue by way of that haunting, subdued chorus sung by Richard Manuel and Levon Helm.
The songwriter credited is Robbie Robertson, although Levon Helm claims this story of an impoverished farmer was a collaborative creation. The song begins with its chorus delivered in gravelly, subdued tones before we hear the speaker of the song announce himself in the first verse. Like many of The Band’s persona pieces, they are quick to delineate between self and speaker: “I work for the union ‘cuz she’s so good to me / I’m bound to come out on top / That’s where she said I should be” (lines 3-6). Immediately, listeners discern that this person is with the union and not yet successful because the verb tense of “bound” denotes unactualized reward.
The effusive way the speaker describes the Union, which might have been part of the Trade Union Unity League’s organizing drives that created collective bargaining units for sharecroppers from 1928-1935, alerts the listener that the speaker is either idealistic or desperate. Or both. The farmer, as we learn through the song, has lost his barn to a fire, his horse to madness, and his crops to drought.
One of the many interesting elements to this song is the timeline; the songwriters end the song before this man’s harvest, which the third changing chorus alerts us is almost here: “Scarecrow and yellow moon, / and pretty soon a carnival on the edge of town.” What’s more, at this moment, the desperate farmer doesn’t tell us what is happening now to him; instead he recalls what has happened to him in the past: “And I can’t remember things bein’ that bad.”
Is he going to be as successful as he claims he’ll be? We don’t know because the song ends before that information, which is a telling move. I’d argue that listeners do indeed know the outcome. The chorus tells us everything. The chorus is sung by Richard Manuel and Levon Helm, and contradicts the energetic melody found in the verses. Instead, Manuel and Helm lower their voices and distinguish that they are not the speaker by the change in melody, vocals, and tone. So then, who are they in this chorus?
Some believe that the chorus reflects the inner thoughts of the farmer and contrast his hope. In other words, the chorus are the speaker’s fears. But what is happening here is a rarity in a persona song: the writer speaks in the chorus, breaking down that fourth wall, that conceptual barrier between any creative work and its auditors.
In that juggling of three balls—the writer, the speaker, and the listener—The Band figures out that their voices could serve the role of an ancient Greek chorus. In Classical Greek dramas, actors composed the chorus, and their role was to comment upon the pivotal moments in the play through song, movement, dance, facial expressions and/or recitation. The Band uses the technique in this song and has their voices become the Greek chorus. With the assertion of themselves, they also assert their opinion on the situation, which differs from that of the main speaker. There will be no bounty nor relief for the farmer. In “King Harvest (Has Surely Come),” a title that even uses parentheticals to undercut the speaker’s assertion, the song beautifully juggles all necessary parts—the writer, the speaker, and the listener.
One period of the persona’s heyday was the Victorian era from 1837 to 1901. This was also the period when novels found their land legs through works by George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Jane Eyre, and all those other novelists to whom we now owe so much. It’s no surprise that persona poems were popular as poetry had to do something to compete with this relatively new genre that was running away with people’s imaginations (and reading time). Famous personas include Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s novel in verse Aurora Leigh, which is a Bildungsroman of a female poet who is not Barrett Browning. Other examples include Robert Browning “My Last Duchess” and “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” whose influence can later be seen in contemporary works such as “Daffy Duck in Hollywood” by John Ashbery, “Lady Lazarus” by Sylvia Plath, Berryman’s Dream Songs, and a number of poems by great persona practitioners such as Patricia Smith, and Ai.
The Victorian personas often emerge more as dramatic monologues with the character speaking to someone in the room or out loud. In his blog, poet Reginald Shepherd explains that “by revealing a character in the context of a dramatic situation (a ‘soul in action’), a dramatic monologue provides knowledge not just about the speaker’s personality, but about the time, the setting, key events, and other characters involved in the situation at hand, even if they are not present.” One could say The Band writes in the style of dramatic monologues: they are performing on stage to an audience—which is the ultimate listener. But is the audience a player in the drama? In the case of “King Harvest,” I think they are.
Social, technological, and scientific changes complicated how Victorian readership viewed the first-person “I,” which was so prominent during the previous Romantic period. Loss of religion and therefore the need for the writer as secular cleric; increased awareness of a writer’s obligation to society; and popularization of realist fiction that strived toward scientific objectivity all contributed to a decline in a personal “I.” In other words, people wanted their poet to also be their priest. To always be the wise one, the thoughtful one, the sitting-under-a-tree one. The problem is: writers know they are not better than their readers. Hence, the persona allows a certain amount of latitude.
One aspect not yet discussed but important to this discussion is the Victorian era’s growing binary between public and private. With industrialism, work shifted to being conducted in a public space such as a factory as opposed to one’s private fields. This resulted in an awareness of what is private and public, with one manifestation being a new emphasis in housing having public and private rooms such as the “public” living room and “private” bedroom. Legendary literary critic, Terry Eagleton, explains that people had to “learn new temporal rhythms and bodily habits, different perceptual skill and styles of emotional response.”
Another way to look at the anxiety surrounding less privacy in the Victorian era is to consider a bus or subway commute. Simply, the less space one has, the greater the need to create a sense of privacy—be it in a physical barrier such as a wall, or a figurative barrier such as holding up a newspaper on a subway car and inserting ear buds. Or more appropriate to this discussion, with more public roles, one needs an intellectual barrier that can be nimble enough to provide personal details at one moment—and allow the writer to hide personal facts and feelings the next.
Persona or dramatic monologues do just that: allow the writer to explore what he/she otherwise would not be able to say if he/she could only write about the self. The Band, through their use of persona, allows everyone to feel the darker disappointments that are not prudent to share.
I cannot help but think of how the narrator in “Sonny’s Blues” describes watching his brother play at the end of the story and how it relates to The Band:
They were not about anything very new. He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell; it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.
The beginning quote from “Sonny’s Blues,” with its assertion that the only people hearing music are the ones creating it, are the ones attempting to impose order on the void, the roar, the disappointment, haunts me. The passage continues to say, “What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.” The combination of “terrible” and “triumphant” gives pause, not because of its inaccuracy, but because of its truth. When Garth Hudson rumbles his wit through the Lowrey organ; when Richard Manuel slides from his soulful baritone to delicate falsetto; when Levon Helm drums the downbeat and backbeat while simultaneously singing off those two beats––all of that is a triumph because it achieves some new sense, a reaching beyond how we understand music, something more like a thunderstorm, or a turn in a story we never saw coming. The songs articulate the emotions we can’t see but that rule us nonetheless. We know that inevitable disappointment when the speaker in “King Harvest” bemoans his burning barn, decimated crop, and demented horse, and sings about the king harvest surely to come that everyone, including the union man proselytizing hope, knows will not come. The singers’ voices with their low, mournful “O”s in “blows” and “come” embody the terrible and triumphant. At that moment, someone sings as someone felt. And that is perhaps the only triumph for this farmer, perhaps the only triumph at all.