What’s the common thread through the songs and music of The Band and The Last Waltz? What explains their enduring following among musical people?
Coming up to our 40th anniversary THE LAST WALTZ HALIFAX musical celebration I’ve had time to really dig in to the songs, the characters, and the event itself.
The music is fun. Good for toe tapping, touch dancing and singing along. But there's a story to it too...
In great story telling there are archetype characters: heroes, orphans, wanderers and warriors, and ultimately there are martyrs.
To resolve the central problem and reach their goal in great stories, the hero must be willing to change, even die. Only by a willingness to lose it all can they win it all. In this way they become a Martyr.
Taking on the Martyr archetype, the hero is no longer motivated by the possibility of success. Instead they are driven solely by the desire to do what is right or necessary, no matter the consequences. Once they give up the thought of winning, embracing the transition from Warrior to Martyr, fate, or nature, or God rewards them by giving them what they no longer dared hoped to get: success. Maybe, if they’re lucky, it’s what they needed all along.
The Martyr can also be a character other than the hero. In this variation of the Martyr archetype, the hero learns and is motivated by the Martyr's example.
In The Weight, the narrator of the story is sent on a kind of quest and in taking on that responsibility meets amazing characters whom he befriends by selflessly taking up their problems – a martyr – he takes the load off them and puts it right on him.
Up On Cripple Creek the narrator gives it all up, gets off this mountain (pursuing fame and fortune) and heads back to simpler things in Lake Charles Louisiana and Bessie.
In Daniel and the Scared Harp Daniel meets a man who is explicitly a martyr asking something of him, “He said there is one more thing I must ask, But not of personal greed”, though Daniel did not initially listen.
In King Harvest the character, whatever his vagaries, is a martyr, wanting nothing more than to do the right thing and suffering horribly for his trust and belief in the systems that promise him success – the farm tools, the bank, the buyers, the union, and ultimately nature itself.
The characters in Acadian Driftwood are martyrs for peace caught up in a world of politics and war. They take on the most astonishing journeys in the name of family and home.
In This Wheel’s On Fire the main character explicitly announces his martyrdom in the chorus saying “notify my next of kin…”
Even the covers they chose hoed this row. The Stanley Bros bluegrass classic Let Me Lose could not be more on the nose...
Now if I lose,
Let me lose.
I don't care
How much I lose.
If I lose a hundred dollars
While I'm tryin' to win a dime,
My baby, she's got money all the time.
Levon Helm liked to say "We're not in it for our health". But they weren't really in it for the money either. It was love. Love of all kinds.
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down introduces us to Virgil Caine, now one of the most famous martyrs for a lost cause in all of popular song.
The songs are often stories of transformation. In a few short verses in ¾ time Evangeline transforms from orphan, to wanderer, to warrior, and finally martyr.
In the end, the martyrdom theme of The Band and its music reached its ultimate climax in THE LAST WALTZ which was itself an act of martyrdom. They gave up the thought of winning, whatever that meant in rock and roll, and transformed from road warriors to martyrs. The luckiest of them all in my view was Levon Helm. He gave up on winning and in the end got everything he ever wanted - everything we all want. Garth Hudson too I suppose. Rick Danko and Richard Manual are gone – paying the ultimate price for martyrdom. And I’ll leave it to you to read Robbie Robertson’s new biography to determine how he’s been rewarded.
Martin Scorsese's film of THE LAST WALTZ was definitely an act of martyrdom. It was the first full-length concert film shot live on 35 mm movie film. An infinitely complex undertaking - there was no possible way it could be a commercial success by Hollywood standards. It was doubtful the technology and equipment was even up to the task. And yet, win or lose, he did it because in his view it needed to be done. He was transformed from Hollywood hero to martyr.
Martyrs, even more than heroes, can be the most inspiring characters. In the world of music, where success, whether that means learning an instrument, singing a song, or finding fame and fortune, is so difficult, tenuous and fleeting the martyr speaks to all of us on the road and searching for what we need.
Writing about life, citizenship, and Nova Scotia.