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Don’t Forget the Songs-365: Mach Tres: Day 258
Tues. Nov 19, 2013

“Evangeline”
The Band featuring Emmylou Harris

1977

“♫ She
stands
in the
lightnin’
& thunder
♫”

I couldn’t believe it? When I first watched The Last Waltz, I could have sworn that “Evangeline” the song The Band sung with Gram Parsons favorite muse Emmylou Harris was a traditional southern standard. But it wasn’t, I was wrong; in fact, the performance and recording of “Evangeline” proves how good The Band, and specifically the five-piece musical leader Robbie Robertson lyrically recreated the sound of Louisiana, brought to life with smoke machines on a cold soundstage in Hollywood with angelic Emmylou Harris at the wings singing along with the soulful southern croons with his mates of The Band. How did these deep soulful root rock kings instantaneously transform this Robbie Robertson penned this New Americana Last Waltz of a gem that Emmylou Harris and The Band turned into an instant deep southern classic? It’s like Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson magically sent us into a bluegrass-Cajun state of mind.

“Evangeline” connected Robbie Robertson’s first reflections of America, as he told Classic Albums in 1997, “It was a piece of America that was just more musical. I have no idea why but when I first went there when I was sixteen years old and I first got off the bus in Arkansas, it hit me right away. It smelled. You could smell the music. The air you could taste it, you could hear everything. Right away I said, I get it.” It was this musical philosophy The Band and specifically Robbie Robertson set on recreating their memories of their first sights, smells and senses of America into songs like “Evangeline.”

Robbie Robertson talked about “Evangeline” in an interview with Musician Magazine’s Joshua Baer, when The Band’s musical leader said, “I’d written “Evangeline” as part of The Last Waltz Suite. We did it in the concert and we did some of the other things from the suite at the concert too. But when we were done, it’s like all of these artists represented an element of popular music in their own right. Emmylou Harris was fresh and kind of represented a new school of the country music thing and also she’s very photogenic. She has a great relationship with the camera.

When asked by Bauer about the specific cloud inspired scene in The Last Waltz where Harris looked like an angel singing next to the more mortal majesty of The Band, Robbie responded, “That smoke was ice. It was ice that Scorsese had done to diffuse the thing a little bit. The song was about this area in the Everglades, that bayou where you visualize it in a misty way, so he was just kind of going with the song.”

Author Annette Wernblad picked on the director’s use of smoke in that immortal Last Waltz scene in her book, The Passion of Martin Scorsese: A Critical Study of the Films, when she wrote, “In contrast to the stories about stealing, spitting blood, whoring, drinking, and doing drugs, Emmylou Harris looks radiantly immaculate and ethereal with her floor-length dress and long black hair. Joni Mitchell’s performance [in The Last Waltz] suggested a string, thoroughly modern woman, equal with and sharing the same lifestyle as the men. Emmylou Harris becomes the antithesis to that, invoking both the eponymous Evangeline of bygone days who slips into madness, and being herself shown as a manifest and timeless Madonna whose light-blue dress is the same color as the one in which the Holy Virgin is traditionally depicted.” “Evangeline” is one of those rare instances where the picture and lyric transcends time and brings to life a memorable performance captured eternally by Martin Scorsese in The Last Waltz.

Did you know that “Evangeline” almost remained an unfinished masterpiece? Levon Helm described the scene at The Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, home of the last ever performance of The Band, when the drummer wrote in his book The Wheel’s on Fire, “It was a madhouse backstage. Jerry Brown, governor of California, wanted to shake hands with us. We had to rehearse a new song called “Evangeline” that Robbie had written only the night before, because we had to perform it during the last part of the show for the sake of film continuity. In fact, the piece was still unfinished, and Robertson and [The Band’s producer and arranger] John Simon were huddled in a corner, frantically trying to figure out an arrangement we could play without rehearsal. Then we managed to play, “Evangeline” in a sort of country two-step, reading the lyrics off of cue cards held behind the cameras, but the lack of rehearsal really told the story.”

You could never tell that “Evangeline” was written the day of the final performance of The Band’s last show at Winterland. The way that Robertson penned this beautiful song evoked a timelessness that reached back to the glory of some of The Band’s more vintage songs from Music from Big Pink and 1969’s self-titled The Band LP’s. It must also be said, Robertson did find inspiration from American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as Peter Viney noted whose epic poem 1849 called “Evangeline” also mentioned “Evangeline from the Maritimes” depicted in Robbie’s already timeless song. Despite all the conjecture about songwriting credits that haunted the legacy of The Band, “Evangeline” definitely prove, there’s no doubt, that Robertson was the author and keeper of The Band’s lyrical flame.

Unbelievably written in 1976, I swear you could close your eyes and taste the scent of cotton fields blowing through the sweetness of this southern cried glory. In Classic Albums, Musical scholar Greil Marcus likened Robbie and The Band’s music to being a musical passport, bringing the listener back to an America rarely heard and now brought to life so beautifully and so authentically charming that the music urges you to put on your headphones and truly experience this musical adventure. What are you waiting for? Spin this already vintage treasure that begs you from its opening fiddle to relive the legendary splendor within the strands of this Robbie Robertson penned beauty that remains the instant classic that is “Evangeline.”

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