To pick my favorite Levon Helm moment is a fool’s game. There are simply too many. For now though, today, even this hour I find myself listening to his lovely rendition of Bob Dylan’s When I Paint My Masterpiece. The Band recorded it in July of 1971. Garth Hudson’s accordion slowly finds its way into the song intertwined with Levon’s mandolin and the whole thing kicks into a sort of plaintive dirge. Rarely outside of The Basement Tapes was The Band this sparse, this straightforward. The song is one of Bob’s most American of songs and the 31 year old Levon, his voice already sounding Americana olde, singing of Roman rubble and ancient Spanish footprints while seemingly giving a momentary nod to expats such as Paul Bowles, gives voice to what we may someday accomplish. Dylan’s songs during this period were restless and often searching for poetic connection to the old masters. When I Paint My Masterpiece looks ever forward. It yearns for some elusive and far off masterpiece that like so many of our deep American dreams will remain just that. Was this not our fabled City upon a Hill?
The beauty of Levon’s version is in it’s simplicity. He doesn’t over-sing it, doesn’t pity it or dramatize it. He let’s it lay and gets on with his work.
There were of course more than a few masterpieces in Levon’s body of work, but up to the end he seemed ever looking for the next one.