Reaching back to the days of abject poverty in Appalachia where the melancholy music told stories of a harsh life, rises a vocal style only perfected by a few artists such as Ralph Stanley and Dan Tyminski. Generally applied to a ballad, the stark ragged edged vocals sit above the understated instrumentation creating a funereal and lonesome feel to the telling of the story. Examples of this style of story telling through music might be O' Death by Ralph Stanley from "O Brother Where Art Thou" or Dust Bowl Children by Dan Tyminski from Alison Krauss' "Paper Airplane" or Am I Born to Die? from the "Cold Mountain" soundtrack.
Levon Helmís version of Happy Traumís Golden Bird chilling tale wails the story as any traditional Appalachian saga. The Golden Bird, however, soars above Overlook Mountain in the NY Catskills where Woodstock sits nestled in its shadows. Traum was inspired to write the song after moving from NYC to Woodstock in the late 1960s. His original version of the song can be found on the record titled Happy and Artie Traum, produced in 1970.
Levonís vocals and arrangement of this song, drive the chilling tale home in a way that will bring goose bumps to your skin. Musically, the song begins with only a soulful fiddle, played by Larry Campbell, underpinning Levonís ragged edged vocals. The strain of singing in this style is apparent in Levonís voice but nevertheless, it adds a further measure of petulant mood to the piece.
The piece is masterfully arranged. Each verse of the cut layers in additional instrumentation continuously building more power to the telling of the tale. The final verse brings in the full band instrumentation and contrasting vocals sung by Levonís daughter, Amy Helm. The whole piece is brilliantly arranged leaving the listener with an aching heart for the tragedy of obsession.
Each verse moves the story forward with simple but meaningful lyrics. The story begins with the subject traveling on a path in the mountains where he encounters a beautiful bird. He becomes obsessed with the beauty of the golden bird. After a full day of pursuit and angered by his inability to possess it, he decides to kill it. Finding a worn stone to use as a weapon, he fells the bird. Overcome by remorse, he lifts the bird with blood on his hands and grief in his tears. In the final verses, he awakens in his bed to find a woman bathed in a golden glow. She conveys to him the painful truth of his betrayal. The symbolic moral of the story is played out in the last verse. The message is clear that obsession chains love and destroys it. The bird must be free to fly for love to survive.
Golden Bird tugs at your heart feelings not only because of its lyrical poetry in telling its story but also because of the stark and powerful vocals and arrangement. This is a song that will haunt you as it creates a strong visual image while the melody reverberates in your soul.