Levon Helm and the Preemptive Obituary

Yesterday this tweet appeared in my Twitter feed:


By the end of the day, dozens of retweets later, it was clear how dearly loved Levon Helm, legendary drummer and vocalist of legendary music group The Band, truly is, operative word = is.

Then, this morning, I came across this headline (emphasis in bold added by me):

Levon Helm Was The Real Voice Of America

…and before I even clicked on the link to read the Esquire article by Charles Pierce, I rushed to read the standard news reporting on Levon’s passing, only to find that, as of this writing, he hasn’t actually died yet.

And, before I could process how uncomfortable it was to see a writer referring to Levon Helm in the past tense before he’d even passed, I clicked on the link to read the preemptive obituary only to find that the headline had been changed to:

Whip to Grave: Levon Helm, the Real Voice of America

Now, I don’t know if Charles Pierce changed the headline because he realized how people might react to an obituary for someone who hasn’t died yet, or because the new title fit the premise of his piece better. The latter is compelling, because the phrase “whip to grave” refers to a lyric in a song from The Band’s first album, 1968’s Music From Big Pink, a tune titled We Can Talk, a powerful statement about America’s often stark contradictions.

As for the former, I’ll probably never know, but the question seems irrelevant when you consider something Pierce writes in his last paragraph:

I wanted to write all of this before he passed. I wanted to thank him for the way he sang, and for the throb of his drums, and for the way he helped point the way home for all of us who thought we’d lost our country. He brought us back to what was really important: the fugitive grace of a young democracy, that America, for all its flaws and shortcomings, for all its loss of faith in itself and its stubborn self-delusions, was a country that was meant to rock.

For me, the thought of losing Levon stirs up the sadness of having already lost Band members Richard Manuel in 1986 and Rick Danko in 1999. (A post of mine from September 2010 sings praise for Danko specifically.)

But Levon Helm deserves the credit that Pierce gives him, as he was the only American in a band full of Canadians, he was their street cred as purveyors of Americana music, his southern drawl was unmistakable and his Arkansas roots oozed from his music.

He will be missed when he’s gone, but for now I join in the celebration of his life and the many glorious musical gifts he’s given us.

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