Levon Helm and The Band's vision was capacious and open, flowing with the currents of history, feeling the soil of a complicated nation, playing rhythms of black and white, and expressing vocals that ached of tragedy, loss, and hope. Greil Marcus, for one, heard in The Band's music "a sure sense that the country was richer than we had guessed; that it had possibilities we were only beginning to perceive. In the unique blend of instruments and good rhythms, in the shared and yet completely individual vocals, in the half-lost phrases and buried lyrics, there was an ambiguity that opened up the world with real force."
In The Band's "King Harvest,"as I wrote in Stayin' Alive, you can hear "the confusion of the present and the search for roots in the mystics of working-class history." Although not a a song that features Levon's vocals prominently, listen to his voice come in, burdened with the entire American topography. Hardly a blindly "pro-union" song, this carries the feel and longing for another time and place. As Robbie Roberston put it, this song is about, unions, yes, but really about "the quiet revolution when people ent from being separated to something making them feel that they were all part of something in their livelihood." "King Harvest" is musicially complex, almost sprialing apart, but it is Levon Helm's drums and vocal interventions that hold it together.
In searching for the closing of that open cultural space that Marcus heard in The Band, we only need to turn to Chuck Colson's simultaneous efforts to narrow, manipulate, and mine the resentments and pettiness ever-present in American political culture. Colson's boss, Richard Nixon, loved him as much as he could love anyone, because, as the President described him, he was "positive, persuasive, smart, and aggressively partisan" with an "instinct for the jugular." And so he fueled the great Nixonian project of capitalizing on who hated whom, dividing the tenuous Democratic coalition with his expanding bag of dirty tricks, and reigniting the darkest dimensions of American populism before soldiering off to jail for his crimes. Once in the joint after Watergate, Colson found another fundamentalism--this one religious--that helped him place religious dogma over the painful complexities of being American.
I guess it's not hard today to see which set of early seventies principles prevail upon our own time.
Nixon assigned Colson the task of tearing up workers' economic identity and drawing them into the Nixon coalition based on their cultural resentments rather than economic needs. His "New Majority" coalition, they believed, would replace the Roosevelt coalition. And it did--eight years before Reagan took office. Most every domestic piece of politics of Nixon's administration was calculated toward building this coalition--and the white working class was its foundation. Listen HERE to a phone call between Nixon and Colson as they discuss reactions to the appointment of backlash building trades leader Pete Brennan as Secretary of Labor as part of their efforts to build the "New Majority."