Tomorrow is the birthday of Levon Helm, great and late-lamented vocalist and multi-instrumentalist who helped create the unmistakable sound of The Band as their drummer and sometime singer. Since he was a two-time winner of Grammys for Best Americana Album, including for Electric Dirt (2009), the album from which comes today’s song, it seems fitting to give him a tribute on this American holiday weekend.
“Growing Trade” was co-written by Helm and Larry Campbell, and so is a way to showcase not only Helm’s vocals, but his writing, something that there isn’t a lot of. He mainly sang other people’s songs and didn’t contribute much to The Band by way of composition. What he did was take the songs, mostly written by Robbie Robertson in The Band, and give them their fullest possible vocal expression. Think of his vocals on “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down,” “Ophelia,” “Yazoo Street Scandal,” “Rag Mama Rag,” and “Up on Cripple Creek.” That funky downhomeness that was key to the charm of The Band came mainly from Helm, and his fills on drum are always very tasteful and musical. One of the great attractions of The Last Waltz (1978), the film Martin Scorsese made of The Band’s farewell concert is seeing Helm play drums and sing with his passionate and energetic delivery.
Today’s song is a hoot. It describes, in characteristically no-nonsense fatalism, the hard times of a farmer who has switched from growing real crops to growing marijuana. The song doesn’t state this outright but lets you grasp what the situation is by the things the singer lets fall. The phrase “Now I’m in the growing trade” might be expected to refer to a trade that is increasing—as in, giving up something not profitable for a trade that is, and, indeed, that is the case, but the “trade” here is from something legal and unprofitable to something illegal and profitable. “I know the law won’t be forgiving / But that will be the choice I made.”
That choice comes, we hear, hard, driven by desperation: “I’m half the size that I used to be / And half of that is stone,” reflects on the condition of his fields. Grim, as is the condition of his livestock. He asks himself (or says his grand-daddy would ask) “where’s the dignity of a crop you raise to burn” (letting us know what crop it is), but takes it with a sense of inevitable fate: “But this land is my legacy / I got nowhere else to turn.”
The song is not only an amusing evocation—a natural wit shines through—of a dire enough situation, it also creates the monologue of a believable character, fully articulated in Helm’s delivery. He simply could easily be the guy in the song, had he decided to make a run of it back there in Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, where his folks raised cotton. Now “the thieves are getting bolder / And the feds may be wise to me.”
The eventual stand-off against the forces of law is seen in stark terms. And here’s where the song’s allegiance to the self-reliance (today is Emerson’s birthday, after all) of the enterprising individual, to say nothing of its sympathies with the growers of this particular cash crop, comes through: helicopters, getting closer every day, are going to meet some resistance. “There won’t be any difference / When they take it all away / Between a cot in the jailhouse / And a bed beneath the clay.” You won’t find many better renderings of stalwart stoicism in the face of impossible odds in a modern-day song.
But the part that really makes me believe in this guy and his travails, and in the fact that he really was once a law-abiding farmer (and that gives us the real Levon): “The beauty of the cottonfields / Was like a view from heaven’s door / My granddaddy said that harvest time / Was what the good Lord made us for.” The idea of human beings serving no real purpose other than to reap and sow is deep in the veins of the farmer mentality (I descend from a bit of it myself) and Helm gives it to us in an “all’s right with the world” register, indicating that, to such a man, growing something is better than any other trade he could imagine, and, when the jig is up, it’s best to be planted in the ground himself.
Helm lost his voice to throat cancer in the late Nineties, but came back in 2008 and 2009 with his best non-Band recordings. The voice on this song is as fully present as the best Band songs, and as storied and moving as ever. And that’s his daughter Amy providing back-up.
Hats off to Levon Helm!