She stands on the banks of the mighty Mississippi
Alone in the pale moonlight
Waitin’ for a man, a riverboat gambler
Said that he’d return tonight
So begins the tale of Evangeline. This was Robbie Robertson’s swan song as writer for The Band. He was still finishing it during Thanksgiving of 1976 as his old bandmates, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, and Richard Manuel gathered together one final time in San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom. Standing in front of the Opera set of La Traviata ~ The Fallen Woman the men took their places in front of 5,000 turkey fed folks and, with a few friends, played their hearts out. They left them where they lay.
Evangeline didn’t find it’s home that night amongst the rock n rollers who filled the stage. It would be later in the following year as Robertson was mixing the live recording of The Last Waltz when someone remembered they had invited a young country singer to perform with them that past Thanksgiving, but she hadn’t been able to make it*. The song Emmylou Harris was suppose to sing was Evangeline and when she finally did sing it, standing next to Rick Danko, it finally found its way home.
The song itself is a wonderful Cajun-inflected revenge story. A discarded woman summons up the waters of the mighty river and sinks the Mississippi Queen where her lover gambles. It’s a cautionary tale:
They used to waltz on the banks of the mighty Mississippi
Lovin’ the whole night through
Don’t forget where your love belongs.
The revenge business is kind of funny though – not haha, but rather, hmmm. Her anger is at the old gambling boat and that’s what she sinks. Her lover just happens to be on it.
Curses the soul of the Mississippi Queen
That pulled her man away
Emmylou often seems most at home singing duets and I imagine she’s thrilling to sing with. The Band was blessed with so much talent it near overflowed and Rick Danko was everything I could wish for as a foil to her voice. I believe it was the only time they recorded together, but as it’s said, at least with have this.
Emmylou Harris and The Band; Evangeline
Listening to the legacies of these musicians it’s difficult to parse out the highlights. This is one of them.
* In Martin Scorsese’s documentary The Last Waltz, the segments with Emmylou Harris and the Staple Singers were recorded after the fact on a sound stage.