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Tom Chaney: From The Hawks to The Band

Of Writers And Their Books: From The Hawks to The Band. Tom reviews This Wheel's on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band. This column first appeared 12 September 2010.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Yes, I Can. And, Yes, I Did!

By Tom Chaney

From The Hawks to The Band

I grew up liking country music despite the efforts of my mother and Miss Eleanora who taught music splendidly to dozens of local kids -- all but me.

After four frustrating years of twice weekly music lessons, Miss Eleanora told mother that her money would be better spent on anything other than music lessons for me.

And all that time, every Saturday night, I huddled under the covers on the bed with the little black Philco radio listening to the Grand Ole Opry on WSM in Nashville. Every now and again mother's voice would drift up the stairs, "Turn it down. I can still hear it."

There was Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Faron Young, and all the rest 'neath a scratchy army blanket.

By the time I went to college in 1956 country music was drifting away from my still unformed taste. Oh! I had driven an egg truck all night sometimes listening to the blues and John R on WLAC in Nashville. But the blues did not replace "Jambalaya" by Hank Williams. Every time I hear that song to this day, I see the dash board of a 1953 Chevrolet truck rolling down the main street of Manchester, Tennessee, with old Hank blasting out of the radio -- speaker rattling.

It took about four decades for my music taste to turn to classical.

In the meantime, in the face of Elvis, I did a retro jump backwards to some of the roots of country. I think I wore the grooves plumb through on a long playing, 33 1/3rd set from the 1959 Newport Folk Festival.

So in the fall of 1963 I was ready for Bob Dylan. I first heard him whilst I was living in the wiles of Waco, Texas. One of my friends was doing a master's thesis on the poetry of Dylan. That was way cool! Dylan helped us ease the hurt of the murder of President Kennedy just two hours away.

The summer of 1965 found me doing technical work in summer theatre at Kentucky Lake state park. I had just finished a job of holding class at Caverna and was headed for southwest Arkansas -- bent on misleading a bunch of unsuspecting college freshmen.

An actor in the company, I think he played the wolf in "Reynard the Fox," was headed back home to Dallas. He asked me to come over from Magnolia, Arkansas, to the campus of Southern Methodist University in the big D for a Bob Dylan concert that fall.

I gave the invitation about ten seconds thought and accepted.

What I did not know at the time was that Dylan was in transition. I had admired his acoustic folk style. That music was the first half of the concert. But he was going electric. After intermission he came to the stage with Levon and The Hawks.

Dylan had joined forces with Levon Helm and The Hawks just that August. The transition to electric had been soundly booed at the Newport Folk Festival and at a couple of other concerts. The one in Dallas was about the fifth one -- second in Texas after San Antonio. Neither of the Texas gigs drew the ire of the fans to quite that degree.

Now, that brings me at last to the book of this week. 'Tis This Wheel's on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band, by Levon Helm with Stephen Davis published by William Morrow and Company, 1993.

By 1966 Dylan and The Hawks had peaked; Levon had left the group -- affected by the booing.

In 1967 The Band began to take shape with Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Robbie Robertson. They played together for some ten years culminating in the MGM production of "The Last Waltz" in 1977.

The Band has continued and earned a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney -

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