Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” makes a scene sweetly devastating

Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” makes a scene sweetly devastating

In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. 

Nearly three weeks after I watched it, I’m still thinking about The Broken Circle Breakdown, a gut-wrenching film I recently reviewed. The film has a lot going on, but the most surprising part for me going into it was the music—the earnest, reverent performances of bluegrass and country songs performed by the film’s Belgian cast. One pivotal scene finds the protagonists’ band performing a rendition Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You.”

It’s a hopeful, fraught scene where Van Zandt’s words not-so-subtly speak to the troubles the main couple, Didier and Elise, have endured during the film. The song has a sweet romance to it—“The lady’s with me now since I showed her how  / To lay her lily hand in mine / Loop and Lil agree she’s a sight to see / And a treasure for the poor to find”—but still has a sadness. Maybe it’s just Van Zandt’s voice, which had an everyman’s simplicity, but he could turn a phrase just right to make it feel like a punch in the gut. 

On The Late Great Townes Van Zandt, “If I Needed You” is preceded by the similarly understated “Pancho & Lefty,” Van Zandt’s best-known song. Pairing them back to back makes for a potent combination. They’ve both been covered numerous times over the years, especially “Pancho & Lefty,” and “If I Needed You” turned into a duet after Van Zandt acolyte Emmylou Harris performed it with Don Williams in 1981. That version most heavily informs The Broken Circle Breakdown Bluegrass Band’s rendition. When Andrew Bird released a version of it last year, he emulated Van Zandt’s solo approach.

“If I Needed You” so perfectly captures what’s happening in The Broken Circle Breakdown at that point that it’s hard to imagine any other song being used. The film has numerous performance scenes, but this one, and one from the final scene, have been sticking with me. Plenty of the credit goes to Veerle Baetens, Johan Heldenbergh, and director Felix Van Groeningen, but most of it goes to the late, great Townes Van Zandt.