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March 8, 2002
5:34 PM   Subscribe

W.P. Kinsella probably the finest literary chronicler of America's National Pastime is also a master at the delicate art of being sentimental without being saccharine. The Band created some the greatest musical portraits of America ever committed to wax. Both of these artists tackle very "American" themes, yet both(excepting Band drummer Levon Helm) are Canadian. Canada is often ignored or glossed over culturally speaking, but these two examples make me think that perhaps Canadians have a unique perspective on America that helps them create such amazing portraits of the US.
posted by jonmc (16 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
Good lord I love the band. Never figured out why they weren't 10 times as popular as anyone else.
posted by Settle at 6:37 PM on March 8, 2002


When I lived in Seattle, and started reading Kinsella, I got the idea from the local media that he also lived in the area. Turns out he was based in White Rock, British Columbia, only a few minutes away from the Canada/U.S. border. I never imagined he was from the middle-of-nowhere, Northern Alberta.

You might make the point that Kinsella writes so well not because he's Canadian, but because he didn't go to school until the fifth grade, didn't get his degree until age 39, and didn't publish a book until he was almost 42. He took time to do things instead of just sitting at a desk typing.

I've read about a dozen of his books, and really love the Native American stories, especially the book Scars. On the other hand (sorry jonmc), his baseball stories have almost always left me cold. I never understood why people like them so much.

(At this point I realize I should cite some baseball books I do like, and not just be negative, but I'm getting hungry. Whooo, floor pie!)
posted by LeLiLo at 6:43 PM on March 8, 2002


leilo- true, his middle-of-nowhere upbring probably palyed in big part in his iconoclastic outlook( I love his political stance and no-bullshit attitudes expressed in the interviews. It also perhaps, kept him from becoming as tiresomely jaded and cynical as many other forty-year old authors, which is why his books have that sweetness to them(and I mean honest swetness, not the Chicken Soup for Whatever...kind. Everytime I read or reread something by Kinsella, I feel better when I'm done.
The same goes for The Band. Here, too, I imagine the relative isolation of their Canadian upbringings allowed them to retain the sense of wonder at America that is such a big part of their brilliance.
posted by jonmc at 6:59 PM on March 8, 2002


I know precious litt about The Band, though I have heard some of their music and have seen The Last Waltz a dozen times. But the point for me is that they took to the American blues, early on, and another outside groups also did: The Rolling Stones, and they too were non-American at the time. Lesson? It is as much America that won them over as the fact that they diswcovered things in America worth focusing upon.
posted by Postroad at 7:25 PM on March 8, 2002


That's quite right. Listen to the Band's original version of The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down, then listen to Johnny Cash's. Both are good, but one is much better...one is less...American.

Now, Travis, there's a band who shouldn't cover The Band...although they do it well. The link above has some amazing covers...some by bands from norway, one swedish band, black crowes...an r&b version of something, beatles...byrds...lots of people. That's one of the best band-sites on any band I've seen.
posted by Settle at 7:25 PM on March 8, 2002


It is as much America that won them over as the fact that they diswcovered things in America worth focusing upon.

Astute observation, Posty. Of course this was only one factor in the Band's greatness. There was the nearly supernatural tightness they acquired from the years playing together backing Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan, and the fact that they had not 1 but 3 world class vocalists, not to mention Robbie Robertson is on of maybe 5 guitarists whose sound is instantly recognizable.

But the point for me is that they took to the American blues, early on,

This is due to the presence of Arkansan Levon Helm(who someone called "the only drummer who can make you cry") who had a natural comfort with R&B that no Englishman could match. I'd say their version of Marvin Gaye's "Don't Do It" is one of the 10 best R&B covers of all time.
posted by jonmc at 8:04 PM on March 8, 2002


I bought a remastered copy of Music from Big Pink last weekend, and I'm glad I did. In addition to the nine songs that it adds to the original is most of the excellent article from Rob Bowman which is included in the history section of the Band's web site. I've played the cd about a dozen times since. I've owned and enjoyed their second album, the Band, for a long time. Should have bought this one years ago...

jonmc, I agree with you about the influence of Levon Helm in the southern american voice they bring to their music. And I can only imagine the look on Robbie Robertson's face when he found out that the Staple Singers wanted to cover the Weight.
posted by bragadocchio at 8:36 PM on March 8, 2002


Aretha was the one who made a single of it, too, bragadocchio, and I'd recommend the remastered CD of their eponymous second album just for the bonus tracks. Eschewing several commentary self links here, I must note that I, too, have noted the Band site in passing, if only to remark that, Canadians vs. Americans angle aside, it's Norway that has the best Band and Dylan fan sites, and both are extraordinary--which is food for thought, too.

It's that second album that did them in, I'll wager, as it was their masterpiece, arrived at too soon--it was all a slow crumble thereafter. Man, though, that Unfaithful Servant, King Harvest. oh, what songs that album had...
posted by y2karl at 9:21 PM on March 8, 2002


I've always been partial to Jawbone and Jemima Surrender myself, Karl, along with the more obvious ones, of course. I've actually worn through 3 LP copies of the "brown album". I imagine it'll be quite a long time before we see a band as good again. Which of course is a drag, see as how when the Band performed at the Last Waltz, I was in 1st grade, Just my damn luck to be born too late.
posted by jonmc at 9:38 PM on March 8, 2002


Karl, Aretha and Patti LaBelle alway get a percentage of the votes in presidential elections around where I live. You're preaching to the choir here. It is time to upgrade the Brown album to cd - good suggestion (I haven't heard those bonus tracks).

jonmc, much like the Band wasn't as appreciated in their time as they possibly should have been, I image there's at least one band out there now who have recorded an album or two and haven't gotten the recognition they deserve. Maybe if we're lucky, we'll recognize them before they perform their Last Waltz.
posted by bragadocchio at 10:26 PM on March 8, 2002


W.P. Kinsella probably the finest literary chronicler of America's National Pastime is also a master at the delicate art of being sentimental without being saccharine
Well, it's debatable. Many of us think that the man's stuff really really REALLY drips some heavy sentimentality. Maybe not on a "Terms of Endearment"-like level, but close
posted by matteo at 12:34 PM on March 9, 2002


If you link it they will come...
posted by feelinglistless at 2:56 PM on March 9, 2002


WP kinsella?? off topic?? band discussion people!
posted by Settle at 6:57 PM on March 9, 2002


(Damn! I missed a Band discussion? shit....)

Best. Band. Ever.

Got all their lps, Rick Danko was one of my bass heroes. Finally got to see them in their first post-Robertson configuration. God, what a great show...I sure miss 'em.

I didn't think The Last Waltz really did 'em full justice. I much preferred the Rock of Ages live album. Similar arrangements to the original albums, but with the addition of a horn section.

If you like the first two albums, and you haven't listened to The Basement tapes, you HAVE to get it. I think roots rock may have been born when they recorded "Ain't No More Cane".

I guess it's true that the Canadian view of the US is different. I think Robbie Robertson "got" the South, maybe due to his connection with Levon Helm. I don't think Neil Young was as successful, lyrically, with Southern Man (Bull whips, cracking, how long how long) or Alabama (Lillie Belle your hair is golden brown, I seen your black man coming round).
posted by groundhog at 7:36 PM on March 10, 2002


The rockabilly connection is very important. It's a history that is little understood, because it gets conflated with the whole rock and roll history. Back in the early days though, the top rockabilly singers got together and basically divided up North America. Carl Perkins got one area, the others each took a part of the US. Ronnie Hawkins got Canada, and based himself out of Toronto. They were basically trying to make as much money as possible by not competing with one another as much, as I have heard it.

So by working with Ronnie Hawkins they developed tip-top rockabilly chops - all pro by any standard - but outside the mainstream of music at the time. That allowed them to both steep themselves in a particular musical type from which they could springboard into other areas fairly easily - but it also made them a killer backing band, which, as musical people know, is a different sort of thing than forming your own band. It was that particular ability to play to another person's vision that got them the gig with Dylan.

And Garth Hudson is a genius. There's that as well.
posted by mikel at 8:35 AM on March 11, 2002


I wasn't aware of the regional rockabilly agreement. That's very interesting. I can imagine the late-night card game where they figured out who got what...

Garth Hudson IS an unbelievable talent. Besides his technical chops, there is so much emotional range and depth to his playing. I was listening to "Apple Suckling Tree" the other day, it put the biggest smile on my face. Anyone else attempting to play that would sound silly. He makes it sound...happy.
posted by groundhog at 9:39 AM on March 11, 2002


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