Apr 22, 2012
This week, two iconic figures of American culture, both of whom made their marks in the 1970s, died. Chuck Colson was a powerful political operative, convicted felon in the Watergate scandal, and then a leading force in the evangelical church. Levon Helm grew up in Turkey Scratch, Arkansas; played various – and “fused” – forms of country, folk, blues, and gospel music; was a major member of “The Band” that backed Bob Dylan; and became an inspiration to two generations of singers and songwriters.
There is no case to be made for “ideological bookends,” or the irony of two enemies in the culture wars: that is not the fabric I wish to weave. These two men did not face off 40 years ago; Levon, for instance, was not even a part of any major protest movement in the pop music of his day, otherwise a common association.
The lives of these two men, different as they were, offer, I think, powerful lessons for countrymen they leave behind. Their names were seldom paired in a sentence before this week, but should be in a certain way.
They showed us that how you live is important. But how you die is more important.
Colson’s story has become the stuff of legend (in fact, his autobiography, Born Again, was made into a movie): powerful Washington lawyer; connections; joined the Nixon Administration, where his official duties included communication with lobbyists and interest groups, and political strategy, and his unofficial duties included dirty tricks and monitoring “enemies.” He was involved in Watergate and the cover-up, but was convicted of complicity in a break-in and scheme to discredit an anti-war opponent. Colson served time in prison.
Having read C S Lewis’s Mere Christianity, he gave his life to Christ. He witnessed to other inmates in jail. Colson founded Prison Fellowship after his release, and ever after toiled for prisoners’ rights, visitation reform, assistance to families of prisoners, and chapel programs. He founded an institute to enable Christians to be informed and effectively work in today’s society. He became an ardent, and thoughtful, foe of post-modernism. Prison Fellowship, as an evangelical outreach, is active in 114 countries; my son-in-law’s father ministers weekly in Ireland as part of the team there.
Levon Helm, in another corner of the culture, worked in many fields of music as a singer, mandolinist, drummer, and composer (“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”). His dedication to roots music began in the 1960s and ‘70s. He also acted in “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “The Right Stuff.” Battling painful cancer of the vocal cords for more than a decade before his death this week, he continued to perform until a couple months ago. Sometimes without singing. Sometimes digging deep, from somewhere, finding the strength and the pipes to sing some lyrics. Amazing. As always.
More and more he came to concentrate on old-time country, gospel, mountain music, and rural blues. This son of a cotton farmer represented something I have long held about the value of tradition, race, and nationhood: no matter where you roam, or how much you explore, or what faraway places you might live in, the best journey is that whose end is right where you started.
Chuck Colson returned to his Savior. Levon Helm returned to his musical roots. What really united this unlikely pair, in my eyes, was that they each completely sold out to the things they loved and knew. Their passion knew no bounds. They each died in the saddle, so to speak – Chuck’s brain hemorrhage came while he was speaking to a church group; Levon performed at his house (“Midnight Rambles”) in Woodstock right to the end. How many of us have that passion… and live with that passion?
We cannot be too sad when people like this leave us. They lived worthwhile lives to the fullest, enduring much even amidst their joy. No less a person than William F Buckley, for instance, doubted and mocked Colson’s conversion at first. Helm felt betrayed by members of The Band and sometimes met resistance to his mixed bag of roots music. But in a sense, passionate fighters like these men did not just die – they LIVED. How they lived is important, but to the rest of us, how they died might be more important.
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A predictable number in Levon’s stage show was the great Carter Family gospel song “No Depression in Heaven.” Purposely, the lyrics were ambiguous about economic or emotional depression – because neither will be there, in God’s place. Here is a stage version from a couple years ago with Levon on the mandolin and the great Larry Campbell among backup, and Sheryl Crow on lead vocals. Great lyrics.
Click: No Depression in Heaven