Daniel & The Sacred Harp
Notes by Peter VineyCopyright © Peter Viney 1999
When my elder son was born the midwife said, “Daniel? Like the song?”
Daniel & The Sacred Harp
Daniel & The Sacred Harpis one of The Band’s greatest songs, but like Jupiter Hollow, another all time great, it has never been graced by a live performance. Well, there’s a Rick Danko tape where he sings two lines between numbers, but that’s it. I would place it up there with The Weight and King Harvest and Acadian Driftwood.
The Biblical prophet Daniel featured in a series of jokes when I was at school. These were encapsulated in a series of verses, in the same school of oral literary tradition as ‘Eskimo Nell’ and ‘Twas On The Good Ship Venus”:
This Daniel isn’t the Biblical prophet from the lion’s den either, but the name sounds solidly Biblical. There are other famous Daniels from Daniel Defoe to Daniel Boone, but the setting of the song places us in an Old Testament landscape.
The song is based on the Faust story, in its American incarnation, Robert Johnson’s blues, where the artist trades his soul for the ability to play. This has been echoed in later songs, like Charlie Daniels' The Devil Went Down to Georgia, and there are traces in Kevin Doherty’s Don’t Wait from Jubilation.
Greil Marcus traced the Robert Johnson story in Mystery Train.
Given that Marcus is tracing a theme through Robert Johnson, The Band, Elvis, Sly Stone and Randy Newman 8 it’s odd that he doesn’t explicitly embrace Daniel & The Sacred Harp in his theme. Marcus goes on to state the possibility that Johnson really did sell … or try to sell … his soul for the ability to play. The place where you met the Devil was at the crossroads at midnight. Barney Hoskyns picked up the theme, and was able to quote Robertson at length. (He failed to note for the superstitious that Robertson’s name is Robert Johnson with the John missing.) Hoskyns brings in guitarist Roy Buchanan, one time member of Hawkins’ Hawks.
Robbie Robertson (quoted by Barney Hoskyns)
Hoskyns says that Robbie’s own playing also gave rise to speculation that he’d entered some diabolical pact.
Robbie Robertson (quoted by Barney Hoskyns)
Later on, Hoskyns knocks the song:
Robbie has said it’s based on Sacred Harp shape-note singing. Shape-notes are do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti notated by different shapes of the note head. 12 It is a simplified system of musical notation, and one that could be used by people who could not understand traditional notation. Scott Tribble referred me to the shape-note singing website, and these extracts not only explain it, but place it deep in a Southern tradition.
The name "Sacred Harp" tradition is based on the most popular compilation, B.F. White's The Sacred Harp published in 1844.
There are two examples of the form on the Smithsonian Anthology of American Folk Music, both by The Alabama Sacred Harp Singers from 1928. The Smithsonian set is supposed to have influenced Dylan. Both the Sacred Harp songs on the set (Rocky Road, Present Joys) are accompanied by reed organ, and are definitely an acquired taste. Harry Smith's famous notes include:
Not just Dylan then.
Robbie has used the words 'sacred harp' but this harp is a physical one. What kind of harp is it? To Levon, or James Cotton or Sonny Boy Williamson a harp is a a mouth-harp, or harmonica. To me this harp is definitely the kind angels play, with strings. I even wonder if Richard’s performance as Daniel might have been in Robbie’s mind when he wrote Fallen Angel. 17 If Robbie was said to have made a pact to achieve his guitar playing brilliance, then what about Richard’s voice? Which refers us to the Sacred Harp tradition again. I suspect the three meanings of harp are a small joke, with a bow to the blues myth in one of the meanings. The tune is not blues. The link to Johnson is thematic, not musical. Musically, Robertson was deliberately trying to get an Appalachian sound.
There are two distinct voices. Levon is the narrator, and Richard is Daniel. Levon's voice seems to be the choice whenever there was a biblical connection from I pulled into Nazareth, to The Saga of Pepote Rouge to Gimmee A Stone from Largo.
The song starts off with what seems to be a chorus:
Daniel, Daniel and the sacred harp
But a chorus appears at regular intervals through a song. This only appears twice, once at the very beginning and once at the very end. It's a framing device rather than a chorus. Unusual.
dancing through the clover is an image that conjures up “being in the clover” - everything’s going great for you, you’re surrounded by abundance. And there’s Daniel dancing through the middle of it.
The narrator is not distanced. He’s a neighbour of Daniel’s, living in the same time and space.
I heard of this sacred harp years ago,
The “old” is the affectionate use. Somehow Daniel seems young. We know the harp is legendary.
Tell me Daniel how the harp
This previews the fact that we learn in the next verse. The harp, like religious emblems over the ages, can’t be touched or handled by just anyone. There’s a select priesthood, or an “elect” or "the saved" who can bear the harp. “chosen few” will work for fundamentalist Christianity, Judaism, Mormonism or Jehovah’s Witnesses. I don’t believe it’s any of them specifically (even though “chosen few” sounds close to “chosen people”.) The procession might be a straightforward religious ceremony, or it might be a march at judgement day. But we already begin to wonder if Daniel is qualified to be there.
In one of The Band’s most perfect transitions between roles in a song, Levon sings 18 :
And Daniel said …
Which is immediately made flesh by Richard coming in as Daniel 19:
The sacred harp was handed down
The juxtaposition between the high-faluttin’ unto and the coloquialand me not bein’ related is an example of Robbie’s connecting of Bible times with mythical America. So the harp-bearer or harpist is a hereditary role. It’s exclusive, and Daniel is excluded. But this is where the trouble begins.
So I saved up all my silver
Daniel’s going to cheat. The saved up silver is his accumulated wealth - the ability he has gained through hard work and experience. He’s willing to trade this for the “harp”. And he gives his accumulation of knowledge and experience to a man who makes promises. The man can put that harp, that success, right into the singer’s hand. The man has to be Albert Grossman, the Band and Dylan’s manager. The Band were trading their hard-won abilities and knowledge for the promise of great success. Is this subliminal or deliberate?
Three years I waited patiently
The success takes three years to arrive (er …could that be 1968 to 1970? Or 1967 to 1969? The point’s the same.). And the Biblical setting is confirmed, the harp was found at the Sea of Gallilee. Robertson's sources often turn out to be genuinely researched, and I had to look at a bible just to see if there was any association between the prophet Daniel and a harp. I can only remember three stories about Daniel. There's the lion's den, the writing on the wall, and the burning fiery furnace. Check. No, Daniel had charmed the lion by prayer not by musicianship. Cancel that thought out. Leave the writing on the wall to Paul Simon. But then turn to the fiery furnace story. King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon, beloved as he is in spelling contests, set up a mighty golden image that he wanted people to worship. He commanded the people:
That at what time ye hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, dulcimer and all kinds of musick, ye fall down and worship the golden image that Nebuchadnezzar, the King, has set up. 20
In other words the sound of the music is connected to the worship of a golden image. An image of wealth, not of soul.21 The golden image comes in To Kingdom Come from Big Pink too: I see a golden calf pointing back at me. Incidentally the reason I remembered that story at all was the old spiritual about Meshack, Shadrach and Abendego (who were the three guys who got tossed into the fiery furnace).
The man is making good his promise when he returns with the harp, but there’s a necessary price:
He said there is one more thing I must ask
Uh-oh. Bad mistake.
But one that many singers have made when signing deals. And note the mealey-mouthed but not of personal greed …
It never is.
It's the promotion expenses, the loan for equipment, the 10% reduction in royalties from the record company to cover "breakages" (a practice dating back to shellac 78s and surviving via unbreakable 33s to CDs), the burgers and fries on January 25th 1967 at the truck stop that the manager paid for; and hey, it costs money to run an office, the phone bills, the press ads, the payola, the secretary's new coffee cup, the legal fees for this contract, and the price of the pen you used to sign it. That's the ten cents on page 382. And it's going to take Daniel some time to find out what the deal is. Though we, the listeners, will have guessed.
It's time for an instrumental section, as if Daniel is joyfully testing his new powers. In similar stories, like the later The Devil Went Down to Georgia 23 an instrumental break made a showpiece for virtuoso show-off playing to demonstrate the abilities. Not here. It just continues the stately melody.
Now Daniel looked quite satisfied
We get a hint that the harp has mystical powers. The narrator reiterates that Daniel doesn't know exactly what the price would be, but we soon discover that Daniel has guessed that there will be a price.
Back to his brother
Whether brother means sibling, or is more general, he isn't any help. I'm in a bind is wordplay too. In a bind means have a problem, but the literal meaning is bound to something, here bound to a contract. The brother has guessed that Daniel's in trouble, but takes it lightly, assuming that any come-uppance will in this world.
So to his father Daniel did run
In the landscape this song is inhabiting, I assume that the appeal is to a heavenly father, to God, as much as to his dad. Having done his deal with the dark side, help will not be forthcoming from the power of the force, I mean God. Note: must stop watching Star Wars trailers.
The mood of the music changes, becoming more wistful.
Then Daniel took the harp and went high on the hill
A whippoorwill is a distinctively American bird. It's confined to the East side and Canada. It is seldom seen, though often heard near dusk or dawn. Yet again, Robertson links Biblical Palestine to America. There are two aspects of the diabolical pact here. First, Daniel was playing out his heart just for time to pass. The gift might be eternal life in these pacts, though the result is emptiness. Compare Robertson's fascination with imposed immortality in Rockin' Chair:
Hear the sound Willie boy, the Flyin' Dutchman's on the reef
The ship, 'The Flying Dutchman', was condemned to sail around The Cape of Good Hope until the end of time, because the Captain had cursed God in a storm. If it's on the reef, time has come to an end. 27
Second, he cast no shadow. This is common to similar myths. In the way that vampires don't appear in mirrors, those who have sold their souls cast no shadows. This is the punch line, and the sombre tone of the music lets us know that Daniel has realised the price is his soul.
We get that opening verse again, then mournful pump organ plays it out.
The idea of selling your soul for music must have applied to Robertson’s view of The Band’s position in 1970. Levon’s quote above makes that apparent. Scott Tribble's article Do You Feel What I Feel? traces the marketing of The Band as an entity.
If we follow Scott Tribble's thesis, that the conservative image of The Band was a record company construct (though I'd place the onus on Albert Grossman, not Capitol Records), how bitter it must have been for Robertson, more than anyone, to be playing the cowboy? That's selling your soul for the music. But any myth needs some substance, and The Band's sartorial style, applause for their families as well as their musical taste was inherently conservative. This might be one of the factors in the marked divergence between The Band's musical style and Robertson's musical style in the nineties.
Ragtime Wille e-mailed me an interesting interpretation, which takes us back to Sacred Harp singing:
Side two of Stage Fright is as fine as the first two albums, even though it was mistakenly held to be a prime example of the “difficult third album syndrome.” John Bauldie pointed this out when he reviewed the re-release for Q. All four songs of disquiet that Levon mentions are on side two.
The theme falls over into the next song, Stage Fright. Danko sings:
And for the price the poor boy has paid
This brings me back to my earlier point; that Richard's voice might have been the "sacred harp", the gift that cost the soul. Daniel played the sacred harp like a whippoorwill.
According to Hidecki Watanebe's web site the instrumentation is:
Levon Helm - lead vocal, 12 string acoustic guitar
I think that Garth is playing a pump organ (as others have said). Rick Danko is playing fretless bass, but while on the 1994 DCC Gold remaster and Toshiba-EMI 1998 remaster it sounds as if it could be acoustic as Hidecki says, the original LP sounds chunkier (surprisingly), more like a fretless electric.
The pump organ makes it sound like an outdoor revival meeting, and begins and ends the song on its own. The instrumentation is largely acoustic, which reminds me of Jubilation.
Why wasn’t the song ever performed live? It would have meant Rick playing a sustained fiddle part, and someone else playing bass (it has a great Rick bass part). Levon could have, which would have placed Richard on drums live. I don’t think he drummed on his lead vocals on stage. Levon would have had to sing lead and play bass - unprecedented on live shows, and we'd lose the second guitar. Robbie would have had to choose between guitar and autoharp. Garth would have had to synthesize the pump organ part - possible by 1975, but impossible in 1970. It wasn’t a practical proposition.
Three distinct mixes exist. Originally, Glyn Johns and Todd Rundgren did mixes which were mix and matched on the 1970 release. The 1994 Steve Hoffman DCC Gold CD Remaster switched the mixes where possible, using the mix rejected in 1970. Then in 1998, Toshiba-EMI did a further remaster of the 1970 mix. These are remasters and mixes, NOT alternate versions. The differences are for obsessives only.
Stage Fright (Capitol) 1970, also on US, British and Japanese pressed CDs pre-1998.
Stage Fright (DCC) 1994
Stage Fright (Toshiba-EMI) 1998