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Don't Wait [RealAudio]

by Jonathan Katz

Copyright © 1998 Jonathan Katz

Levon Helm, 1998 The Band's new CD, Jubilation, is reminiscent of their earlier efforts, particularly the quality that gives it a feel of traditional music with voices that "curl together around lines that can carry no date ... [it] is at once old and unheard, a sound that only has to be heard for the first time to feel as if it's being remembered" (1). No single song on the CD evokes this quality of a long-remembered traditional song more than "Don't Wait," the second track on the CD. This one song is the masterpiece of the CD, with lyrics the equal of ANY single song on ANY album by the Band. Others (Viney, Powell, Montgomery) have done a great job of reviewing this CD, I would like to render a few free associations on this one song, which deserves a close look and repeated listens.

"Don't Wait" is a collaborative composition by Kevin Doherty, Levon Helm and The Band. Levon Helm takes the lead vocal, and also contributes, among other things harmonica and an ever present mandolin. The acoustic dobro by Jim Weider has a presence, and particularly the piano of Garth Hudson gives the music its traditional feel - a feel that is as comfortable as a flannel shirt.

Along with this music, however, is a lyric which speaks of a discomfiting tale of life-defining confrontation. Of just what that confrontation consists is only hinted, though at times the hints are so literal they would be dead giveaways, if not at least partially contradicted by other, more subtle, hints. In this way the ambiguity of the lyric best represents traditional music from what Greil Marcus (2) called "old weird America." Marcus quotes an essay on Harry Smith's "Anthology of American Folk Music" by Robert Cantwell (3). Writing about Bascom Lamar Lundsford's "I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground," Cantwell says: "Listen to [the song] again and again. Learn to play the banjo and sing it yourself over and over again, study every printed version, give up your career and maybe your family, and you will not fathom it." Marcus adds that Cantwell could have been writing about almost any one of the songs in this anthology" (2). "Weird" things happen in these songs, and the listener is challenged to put somewhat disconnected fragments together into a coherent whole. It is a musical Rorschach of the Virginia hills or the Tennessee back woods, with enough elements that awake repressed memories of experiences that you know are shared. You have to relate to the lyric - you just aren't sure exactly how. And this is what happens with "Don't Wait."

The song starts with the narrator telling us that he is searching for something alone. What he's searching for is not directly stated, but it is revealed, but not before the key figure, the older man, is introduced.

Well, I was searching by myself
Singing old songs - see if they help
I took the low way, along the sea
Met an older man and he said to me,
'Sing me a song, son, lay it down
Bring it forth then stand your ground'
It smelled like winter, it all felt fine
In that dry bone hazy late November time
The confrontation presents itself. "Stand your ground" challenges the older man. And with this confrontation it smells like winter - is the narrator's life drawing to a close? But it "all felt fine" - the narrator is being drawn into the older man's web.

And now the older man offers his side of the deal. He's known high times more than once but he sticks to the honky tonks. He's known danger, and defeat, and he's seen whole generations fall asleep. And if that knowledge is not enough there's more: He's danced with angels and he's drunk all he wants, but most of all, he's talked with God. Moreover [could there really be more than this?], these experiences have not clouded a self knowledge: the older man knows his face and lives his name [is it Lucifer?], but he goes by Charlie Hawker, an ordinary name. A man who has seen and known all this, and talked with God [not TO God, but WITH God - its a discussion among equals], and he refers to himself as Charlie Hawker! Only a being fully at home with these extraordinary experiences and himself would not let it affect him. And his deal is that the narrator can have this, or at least part of this.

At this point in the song we've now heard more from the older man than the narrator. And the plot unfolds: this is at the very least a confrontation with mortality - the older man is at least death in the winter of the narrator's life. But isn't the older man offering his knowledge, his experience? But at what price to the narrator?

The confrontation is reminiscent of "Daniel And The Sacred Harp," but it is distinctly different. "Daniel" was a re-telling of the Robert Johnson myth draped with biblical overtones, and a deep theme of morality. "Daniel" was the quintessential tale of morality - you give up your soul for earthly pleasures represented by the music of the harp. But in "Don't Wait" the narrator does not appear to be asking for earthly pleasures; none-the-less, his desire has set him up to be victimized by the older man.

The narrator has only revealed that he was searching, and singing old songs. And although the singing of old songs again may reflect music as the metaphor for mortal desires, I think that the key is that these are OLD songs. Old songs reflect experience, and experience is knowledge. And his search for knowledge renders the narrator vulnerable to appropriation by the older man. That the narrator seeks knowledge rather than mortal desire distinguishes this tale from "Daniel And The Sacred Harp." The narrator seeks something that is above reproach. He hasn't succumbed to earthly desire, he's just searching for answers - don't we all. And the older man has them - but at what price?

The narrative now takes a turn, with an element that doesn't quite match what has come before. The older man asks the narrator:

Where are you going tonight
Where are you going so late
Your country needs you boy don't wait
Where are you going
Where are you going
We don't know where the narrator was going and neither does he! He was searching, and the older man is ratcheting up the narrator's need for the object of his search by reminding him. But what is this about "your country needs you?" Is [we can free associate here] the older man Uncle Sam, bedecked in star spangled suit and pointing? If he is, this fragment doesn't fit with everything else. Alternatively "country" here must mean community, or the neighborhood; the older man is reminding the narrator that he has an obligation to the community of man. The older man is playing head games with the narrator - "your country needs you to come with me, do your duty, don't wait!"

And just as the narrative takes this turn, it takes another. With events unfolding almost too fast to follow, the older man stops his attempts to persuade and asks the narrator to present himself.

And then he stopped
Said come here to me
So that I can look at you so that I can see
But then he smiled
He let me go
And in that space lies all the things I'll never know
What was the older man looking for? Whatever it was he found it and smiled. The smile says: "No, I'm not going to take you. But I could have if I had wanted to." The narrator has been given a reprieve from the older man's clutches, though not by any of his own actions. He wasn't suitable, but for what reason?

The deal is not consummated and the narrator's thirst for knowledge goes unquenched. But the older man doesn't walk away, even though he's not taking the narrator. And he is not through with the narrator yet. He has one more head game to play:

And then the sun sank in the west
He said, Boy you know you may never be at rest
The older man tells the narrator that by not consummating the deal, the narrator will never have his quest fulfilled. "You should have taken the deal when you had a chance," he tells the narrator. "You did not appreciate what I offered, so you lose." And the narrator pays a price anyway.
I turned around to face the light
And with a heavy heart I walked into the night
He knows now that he will never get the knowledge that he most wants. And no matter how long and far he searches, he will never find what he could have gotten from the older man. And that is why the older man smiles: he has extracted a price from the narrator, and he has done so without having to give up what he was offering.

But has the narrator really received nothing? He has escaped his brush with death and has not surrendered his soul. He waited when the older man wanted him to act. He has learned not to give in to immediate temptations, however righteous they may seem.

Works Cited

  1. Greil Marcus, liner notes, Jubilation

  2. Greil Marcus, Invisible Republic, Henry Holt & Co., 1997

  3. Robert Cantwell, Smith's Memory Theater: The Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music. New England Review, Spring/Summer, 1991.

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