Levon Helm: 1940-2012


You can almost see the man smile, that mischievous, good-hearted little kids grin breaking over his face as he watches his fans, friends and loved ones follow his funeral procession towards the cemetery in Woodstock, N.Y., a line of musicians bringing up the rear providing a goodbye yawp of raucous Dixie Land jazz.

Such was the send off for Levon Helm, drummer, vocalist and American original, who passed away on April 19 after a long battle with cancer.

Helm was born in the small hamlet of Elaine, Arkansas in 1940, to a family of cotton farmers and music lovers. Though the young Helm couldn’t see a future for himself in the endless rows of white-topped, thorny crops, the music was a different matter.

Some of Helms first musical memories were of seeing traveling shows such as F.S. Walcott’s Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels that featured top African-American artists of the time. Of those performances, Helm would remember, “After the finale, they’d have the midnight ramble. The songs would get a little bit juicier, the jokes would get a little funnier and the prettiest dancer would really get down and shake it a few times.”

Quickly picking up the rudiments of blues, country and R&B on instruments ranging from the harmonica to the guitar, Helm ensconced himself in the local music scene, catching the eye of fellow Arkansan Ronnie Hawkins, a rockabilly veteran who initiated the 17-year-old into the world of rough neck clubs and bars that would be his unofficial home for years to come.

After Hawkins added the talents of three Canadian musicians— guitarist Robbie Robertson, bassist Rick Danko, pianist Richard Manuel, and organist Garth Hudson— the group, dubbed The Hawks, established themselves as one of the foremost bar bands in North America.

The Hawks would eventually head out on their own, accruing layers of myth along the way as they hooked up with Bob Dylan for a series of rage-filled concerts and strange, dog-eared recordings that recall, in their spectral beauty and decaying harmonies, a vanishing America destined to remain a mystery to even its most perceptive chroniclers.

On the strength of their work with Dylan, the five musicians, now known simply as The Band, would be allowed to explore their obsession with that mystery on a series of albums unlike any in rock and roll’s past or future. The second of those albums, entitled simply The Band, would prove to be their most fully realized effort, and it’s on that album that Helm would delve into the musical and historical drama of the song that would come to define him for the remainder of his life.

If Helm had done nothing else of note musically, he would be remembered for his performance on the astonishing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” The Band’s immortal tale of a Civil War Confederate soldier and his struggle to come to terms with the conflict and its aftermath.

The quality of Helm’s work here, as is in each song on their second album, is proof of a musician who found his voice not only in Robertson’s lyrics, but in the very wood and skin beneath his hands, his drums carrying the narrative forward as surely as the pinched, bewildered vocal, adding emphasis, dark humor, a sense of history brought to an exhausted standstill.

“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is Helm’s and The Band’s finest moment, not just musically but corporeally, as they inhabit the very atmosphere of the song so completely that the distance between the artists and their art simply vanishes.

That moment could never last of course, and after the members of  The Band went their separate ways in the late 1970s, each musician, in his own way, drifted, struggling to disentangle his voice from those others that had called out across concert stages for the better part of a lifetime.

Helm, the only American in a band that in some ways had come to define the vanishing heart of the country, turned to acting and the occasional all-star jam. He too drifted.

In the 2000’s, Helm found renewed inspiration in those early memories of Arkansas, holding a series of informal music get-togethers at his home in Woodstock, New York which he called Midnight Rambles. Though a battle with throat cancer sidelined him for a time and nearly robbed him of his wild, keening voice, Helm recovered and resumed doing what he’d always done—making music exactly as he damn well pleased.

The only true sadness in Helm’s passing is that, in his last years, the man was producing some of the finest music of his career. Beginning with the 2007 album, “Dirt Farmer” and continuing with his last release, “Electric Dirt,” Helm returned from his battles with a renewed sense of purpose and a musical direction that, like his voice, was scorched of all the superfluous bric-a-brac that too often clings to popular music, in this or any other decade.

Though many of the songs on those two albums deal with themes of death and mortality, Helm certainly doesn’t sound like a man ready to give up the ghost, growling, stuttering and baying at the moon like a kid who ran away to join the circus and never looked back, who discovered early on the one thing he loved above all else and held on for dear life.

A truly American tale, with more in common with eighteenth-century riverboat gamblers than late twentieth-century rock stars, Helm’s life should serve as inspiration for anyone who’s ever considered crawling out from beneath the shadow of their prescribed future into the deeper shadows of the unknown, the great carnival of life that encompasses madness as well as stardom.

Or as Helm himself once put it, “If it’s not fun, there ain’t no point in doing it.”


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