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King Harvest (Has Surely Come)

[Peter Viney]  by Peter Viney

Copyright © Peter Viney 1997

Written by Robbie Robertson.
Richard Manuel - lead vocal. John Simon plays electric piano through one of Robbie’s magic black boxes. During the chorus, both Robertson and Danko play guitars. The chorus is sung by Manuel and Helm.

Greil Marcus
You take a song like King Harvest (Has Surely Come). Is that a blues song? There’s a lot of blues in it, but it’s not a blues song. Is it a country song? Absolutely not. There’s a progression in there, a ‘sweep’ that country music doesn’t have. And yet there is an anxiousness, a nervousness, a sense of being alone in the singing - it’s pure country music. Is it rock & roll? Sure, it’s rock & roll. And you could go on from there … but what you don’t want to do with that song, you don’t want to take it apart, you know, seperate it into its constituent elements. You want to go with it. You want that song to take you somewhere you haven’t been. Or if you know the song, you want it to take you where it took you before. You want to get lost in that song. And when you’re lost in that song you’re floating through a whole vast American story. [1]

Levon Helm
Some of the lyrics came out of a discussion we had one night about the times we’d seen and all had in common. It was an expression of feeling that came from five people. The group wanted to do one song that took in everything we could muster about life at that moment in time. It was the last thing we cut in California, and it was that magical feeling of ‘King Harvest’ that pulled us through. It was like, there, that’s The Band. [2]

I remember gazing from a freezing cold Oxford Street into the windows of the HMV record store in London. The three Christmas displays in late 1969 were Abbey Road, Let It Bleed … and The Band. Not a bad year, then.

The cover touched something in my imagination. A sense of longing. And I hadn’t even heard it. The first track I heard? Easy. It was King Harvest on late night BBC television, accompanied by a weird black and white 1920’s cartoon. I couldn’t believe the oddness of the sound. The great spaces in the music. The yearning keening voices; the odd stumbling arrangements. The dead slap of the drums. It was like nothing I’d heard before. Maybe it was better than anything I’ve heard since. Later - too many weeks later -I listened through the album with a sense of disbelief. It encompassed an America of the dreams. It rooted music after the dweebling sounds of Pink Floyd and the pretentions of early King Crimson. The up-and-coming Chicago seemed merely workmanlike. Half my record collection seemed as dull and well meaning as Chicago Transit Authority. The Stones were raw and tough, but oddly hairless - oddly chinless even. The Beatles were producing sublime sounds, but it was St. Petersburg 1917. On the West Coast all was mellow. But some British musicians felt that Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead had traded musical competence away for the sake of originality. They were into Alvin Lee and how fast you could play. Bob Dylan was meandering through the backwaters of his roots on Nashville Skyline. The Band had it all - rawness, competence, sublimity, experience, originality and roots.

The sleeve (58K GIF) featured a photo by Elliot Landy, framed in soft brown board (at least in earlier versions - glossy ones a few years later looked terrible). Originally it was to be the backs of their heads, but they were advised to switch! [3] The rear picture (26K GIF) shows them as a country band, Richard at piano, Robbie on a small acoustic guitar, Levon standing by the wood rimmed kit which features a painting of (King) Harvest on the skin, Garth with accordion and Rick with a double bass.

King Harvest is a hard one for me to assess. If The Weight started my own interest in The Band, this song consumated it. To me, it is the most important song on the album, and while a handful of Band songs might equal it, none have ever surpassed it. [4]

Sleeve notes to ‘Anthology’ Volume 1
The music is unusually complex, making use of odd verse patterns and tricky rhythmic suspensions and modifying the natural sounds of instruments for various precisely calculated effects. But because of the way the record sounds, none of this calls attention to itself. [5]

So many things about the song are odd, above all, can you think of any other rock song where the chorus is actually way quieter than the verse? The chorus is soothingly evocative, a whispered entreaty, in contrast to the harsher voice of the narrator, the farmer or sharecropper or whatever you want to call him.

William Bender
King Harvest is touched with a double vision. It’s marked by an ironic interplay between the rich yet somehow threatening sound of nature and the querelous, grasshopperish whine of the farmer … Then comes the refrain, with Danko and Robertson on guitars creating a controlled hush that is just the right rustling background. [6]

Levon plays his ultimate drum part, where the cymbals whisper like the wind through the rice, where the hard slap of the drums shove home the farmer’s plight. Robbie Robertson isolates the bass and drum on the Classic Albums video. For him the rhythm section is the whole basis of the song. Rob Bowman says that the ending of King Harvest might be Robbie’s finest moment as a guitarist, in a style Andy Gill later described as ‘death-by-a-thousand-delicate-cuts’ [7] and Bowman goes on to quote Robertson:

Robbie Robertson
This was a new way of dealing with the guitar for me, this very subtle playing, leaving out a lot of stuff and just waiting till the last second and playing the thing in just the nick of time. It was an approach to playing where it’s so delicate. It’s just the opposite of the ‘in your face’ guitar playing that I used to do. This was the kind of thing that was slippery. It was like you have to hold your breath while you’re playing these solos. You can’t breathe or you’ll throw yourself off. I felt emotionally completely different about the instrument. [8]

To me, the instruments all assume distinct personalities, reflecting and commenting on the lyrics. There’s the guitar, picking, plucky, strutting and wirey, creating an argumentative extra line. Then there’s the bass, dogged, persistent. These are the farmer. The extended notes of Garth’s organ are a contrast, with the irresistible sweep of history resonating through them. Then the drums, the inexorable thump of the seasons changing, the rustle of the wind.

Robbie said he’d been immersed in the novels of John Steinbeck. Ralph Gleason picked up on The Grapes of Wrath - the John Ford movie rather than the original John Steinbeck book - when he reviewed the album for Rolling Stone. We’re right in that territory - the line between independent sharecropper, the grandson of Virgil Kane, and industrial unionised worker was thin and getting rapidly thinner when Steinbeck researched the trek of the landless Okies from the dried-up homesteads of the dust bowls of Oklakoma to the wage-slavery of fruit picking in California in the 1930’s. When the story is recalled, the perjorative ‘Okies’ for Oklahomans is always remembered, because the central Joad family were Okies [9]. If you look back to the Steinbeck book, you’ll find that the other group of farmers ruined by the dust bowl were the ‘Arkies’ from Levon’s home state of Arkansas.

What had happened was this. When settlers arrived in the former Indian Territory, which became Oklahoma, in the 1880s and 1890s, the region was enjoying a short, unusually wetter spell which supported farming, and which persisted until the late 1920s. The drought of the late 20s / early 30s was not so much something abnormal, but simply a return to the naturally arid climate of the area. The same happened in the west of Arkansas. With the top vegetation stripped by intensive farming, the whole area became literally a bowl of fine dust. The banks foreclosed on the poverty-stricken farmers. They were starving and dispossessed. They loaded up their few possessions on battered Model-T Fords and trekked west to California where they could earn subsistence wages in the burgeoning fruit plantations. They became white slaves.

But on the surface King Harvest takes place further south than Steinbeck’s Oklahoma. It never mentions the dust bowl specifically for that matter. If they’re listening to the rice when the wind blows across the water, they’re probably back down in the Mississippi Delta of Louisiana as in Cripple Creek (and most of Robertson’s Storyville solo album.) I’m sure people can tell me where else rice is grown, but that’s the primary image. Robbie Robertson has a knack for combining disparate images and getting resonance from both of them.
Cripple Creek, Colorado- Lake Charles, Louisiana. (Up On Cripple Creek)
Nazareth, Pennyslvania - Nazareth, Palestine - The Wild West. (The Weight)
Dust bowl - Delta. (King Harvest)

Ralph Gleason’s original review also invoked James Agee’s non-fiction book on the 1930’s Deep South, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. [10] The book is actually credited to James Agee and Walker Evans, with Evans’ evocative photographs of sharecropping families accompanying Agee’s innovative text. As such it was a literary departure, and for me it would be Walker Evans stunning photographs which hold the key to the song - and I imagine Elliot Landy (who did the cover pictures of The Band) would be the first to agree. He deliberately evokes Walker Evans. In the video documentary Classic Albums, they illustrate this song’s section with Walker Evans’ still pictures, and clips from the John Ford movie.

Robbie Robertson
It’s just a kind of character study in a time period. At the beginning, when the unions came in, they were a saving grace, a way of fighting the big money people, and they affected everybody from the people that worked in the big cities all the way around to the farm people. It’s ironic now, because now so much of it is like gangsters, assassinations, power, greed, insanity. I just thought it was incredible how it started and how it ended up.’ [11]

The song is set in fall.

Robbie Robertson
In the story to me, it’s another piece I remember from my youth, that people looking forward, people out there in the country somewhere, in a place … we all know it, may have been there, may have not … but there’s a lot of people that the idea of come Autumn, come Fall, that’s when life begins. It is not the Springtime where we kinda think it begins. It is the Fall, because the harvests come in. [12]

It’s Fall, and so there’s a carnival at the edge of town, well, pretty soon. It’s Fall and a time for new hope. The farmer begins by boldly stating his new identity as a union member. But he still depends on wetter weather in the Fall. For Fall brings new promise. Incidentally, Hey rainmaker, won’t you hear my call is interesting given Garth’s reputation for dowsing for water. Levon describes the 1973 concert at Watkins Glen where they were forced off stage by rain as heavy as ‘a cow pissing on a flat rock’ [13]. The day was saved by Garth’s extraordinary organ solo [14] , played until the storm passed over, which left Levon wondering if Garth’s dowsing talents were working in reverse.

The farmer is left hoping that he’s bound to come out on top because now he’s a union man all the way. A false promise, we’re led to believe. The farmer lost his barn the year before. It went up in smoke, prophesying what became of Levon Helm’s barn in Woodstock, which burnt to the ground twenty years later. Garth’s house went the same way in bush fires on the West Coast, taking unreleased Big Pink out takes with it. It’s no wonder (apart from the loss of Manuel’s voice) that recent incarnations of The Band don’t perform it any more!

The farmer’s horse, Jethro, went mad at the same time. Probably it was his only horse. A man came with a paper and pen, telling him that the hard times are about to end. This echoes Bob Dylan echoing Woody Guthrie (in turn echoing Abraham Lincoln), ‘some folks rob you with a fountain pen.’ And the farmer swallows the line,

If they don’t give us what we like
He said, ‘Men, that’s when you gotta go on strike.’

The farmer’s left. Proud. Cocky. Bristling with self identity.

But after the song has ended, after the farmer’s had his say, then in the mind’s eye, we can see the hired strike-breakers already beginning to assemble round the bend in the road, huge men, batons in their hands … and they’re going to beat the shit out of him. Yes, the story continued for me after the song’s lyrics had ceased. For Greil Marcus too, who saw the ‘bitter steel mills’ of the New South as the place where the farmer ended up, with no textual evidence. But he’s right. The story does continue. [15]

Greil Marcus
The guy that’s singing the song, this scared person, whose farm has failed, and who is won to the union, the farmer’s union for identity, for protection, for a way to make a living. The ambiguity of that, if you know anything at all about the story that’s being told there, from other sources, it’s a very, very confusing tricky song. And because it’s so confusing, you just listen to the worry in the voice. I mean, the desperation in that singing gets stronger and stronger as it goes on. You can either embrace it or you can leave the room. [16]

King Harvest was revisited on Rock of Ages, and features on most concert tapes up to 1976 (see for example the Live At The Hollywood Bowl 1970 and Live in Washington 1976 bootlegs.) It didn’t make either The Last Waltz or Live At Watkin’s Glen. It’s also on both of the 1980s videos with the Cate Bros. It was a central part of their stage act. None of them touch the original. It’s so deeply involved with Richard Manuel that it would seem hard for them to do a version nowadays.

Official versions

The Band
Rock of Ages


Classic Albums
Reunion Concert (aka The Band is Back)
Japan Tour


Live At The Hollywood Bowl, 1970 / Crossing The Great Divide
Live in Washinton (sic) / Ophelia (i.e. King Biscuit Flower Hour, 1976 concert in various incarnations)


  1. Video. Classic Albums: The Band
  2. Levon Helm & Stephen Davis, This Wheel’s on Fire.
  3. But on their 1996 live laser disc, they used a shot from the rear on the back sleeve of the disc.
  4. No, this is the interactive element. Compile your own list. It’s fun. Especially if you listen to all the candidates while you’re doing it.
  5. Sleeve notes to CD Anthology Volume 1.
  6. William Bender, Down To Old Dixie and Back, Time, January 12 1970
  7. Andy Gill, Review of Phenomenon soundtrack, The Independent, London, 24 August 1996
  8. Quoted in sleeve notes to To Kingdom Come CD set
  9. Yes, that’s why Bruce Springsteen’s 1995 album was called The Ghost of Tom Joad.
  10. James Agee & Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
  11. Sleeve notes to CD Anthology Volume 1. Note that The Band in the 80s and 90s featured Randy Newman’s ‘Kingfish’ live, which was on exactly the same subject area, albeit from Newman’s ironic point of view. ‘The Kingfish’ was Louisiana governor Huey Long who rose on a populist (or some would say semi-National Socialist) ticket.
  12. Video. Classic Albums: The Band
  13. Levon Helm & Stephen Davis, This Wheel’s on Fire.
  14. ‘Too Wet To Work’ on the Watkins Glen album.
  15. Greil Marcus, Mystery Train
  16. Video. Classic Albums: The Band

Copyright © Peter Viney 1997.
Peter Viney is working on a critical discography of The Band. Comments welcome.

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