May 26, 1940 ~ April 19, 2012
"I was born on this mountain - a long, long time ago
Before they knocked down the timber - an' a strip mined all the coal
When you rose up in a mornin' - before it was daylight
To go down in that dark hole - and come a-back up at night"
When Levon Helm released his album Dirt Farmer, his first in fifteen years, I was not aware of his solo work outside of the rock group The Band. When I hear songs such as "The Weight", "Up on Cripple Creek", "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down", "The Mountain" and Wide River To Cross", I am transported to another time and place. Levon Helm is a master storyteller of the South. He sings of southern culture which transcends the generations. He sings of the pain and destruction of the War Between the States and the struggle to survive off the land. He sings of the hardship, joys and triumphs of a lifestyle that is fading but still as much a part of a land as the red in its soil. There are ghosts whispering in the midday August haze of the southern cotton fields, in the sudden chill of the fog in the pines and in the dark tunnels of the coal mines. Levon's high lonesome vocals bring voice to these whispers and I get goose bumps when I hear him sing.
But it was not until I heard Levon singing the Steve Earle song "The Mountain" on the Dirt Farmer album, did I really understand just how much of Levon I was hearing in The Band. Though "The Mountain" was written by Steve Earle, I felt something grip my heart when I heard Levon's voice, weathered and damaged by years of heavy smoking and radiation therapy. If Steve Earle was a balladeer in the mine, Levon was the voice of the mine itself and of all those who laid down the days of their lives in its tunnels.
Mark Lavon Helm was born into a Arkansas cotton farming family on the twenty-sixth of May in 1940.
"(It was) a low flat water world of bayous, creeks, levees, and dykes, and some of the best agricultural land in the world. Endless cotton fields, gravel roads, groves of pecan trees, canedrakes, share croppers cabins, tenant farmhouses, flooded rice fields, the biggest sky in the world and the nearby Mississippi like an inland sea. We grew up way back off the hard road, miles through the cotton fields...This was during the war and cotton production was at its height. All day and night the freight trains carrying bales and cottonseed oil and I ran to see every freight that came by."(1)
Levon's parents, Nell and Diamond, were music fans and the family radio was often tuned to The Grand Ole Opry
and King Biscuit Time
. Diamond played guitar in a house party band and often took the family to local concerts.
"The sound of the blues, rhythm and blues, country music, is what we lived for, black and white alike. It gave you strength to sit on one of those throbbing Allis-Chalmers tractors all day if you knew you were gonna hear something on the radio or maybe see a show that evening. We were a musical family. Mamma sang in a clear alto voice and dad and I sang together as far back as I can remember. All us kids remember sitting on his lap in the evenings while he relaxed in his chair. My father knew so many songs. He was like a fountain of music. He was still teaching me songs when he passed away at age eighty-two in 1992."(1)
"Young Levon was inspired to become a musician from seeing such diverse performers as Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys
, Sonny Boy Williamson
, Muddy Waters
, Lonzo & Oscar
, Onie Wheeler
, Silas Green
and F.S. Walcott
's Rabbit's Foot Minstrels
during his childhood.
"The first show I remember was Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys on a summer evening in 1946. He took that old hillbilly music, sped it up, and basically invented what is now known as bluegrass music. Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs were in that band. That was the end of Cowboys and Indians for me. I was hooked."(1)
"When folks ask me where Rock N' Roll came from, I always think of our southern medicine shows and that wild Midnight Ramble. The Midnight Ramble cost an extra dollar. The comedians would do their raunchier material, the band would get into its louder Rumba style and the dancers would come out in outfits that were bare and outrageous back then."(1)
Diamond bought his son his first guitar when he was nine. By age eleven, Levon and his sister Linda, who played a home strung washtub bass
, were performing regularly in the Arkansas 4-H Club
"Just about all the farm kids I knew were in the 4-H club because it was the way country kids got to travel around. We would raise live stock and take them to shows and fairs and got to meet other kids like ourselves. I'd usually enter the tractor driving contest and the talent show with my sister. We almost always won...We won the Phillips County Fair talent show, then we won at The Arkansas Live Stock Exposition in Little Rock and then at the big Mid-South Fair in Memphis."(1)
As Levon entered high school, he was known regionally as a talent. Levon would often catch a ride on a farm truck to Helena where the local musicians, including bandleader Sonny Boy Williamson, would let him watch the broadcast of The King Biscuit Time show at local radio station KFFA. By the age of fifteen he was regularly traveling throughout the region and even up to Memphis to clubs such as the Delta Supper Club to see the musicians who were inventing Rock N' Roll: Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Conway Twitty, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley and a young Ronnie Hawkins.
"The added instruments gave the music solidity and depth. People jumped out of their seats dancing to the thunderous, heart-pumping, rhythms. The melting pot that was the Mississippi Delta had boiled over and evolved. It’s magnificently rich blues was uniting with all the powerful, new, spicy-hot sounds and textures that became rock and roll."(11)
By his junior year of high school, Levon formed his own band The Jungle Bush Beaters. They were, by his own account, "a typical high school band who liked to raise a little hell," and he had become "one of those kids who HAD to stay out all night."(1) He also had earned a good reputation as a serious guitarist and drummer, eager to sit in at every opportunity that arose. On one such night, Conway Twitty let Levon sit in with his band at The Delta Supper Club.
Conway gave Lavon the advice to go to Canada where steady work for a Rockabilly musician was plentiful. Conway was an agent, of sorts, to send southern talent up to Canada for Colonel Harold Kudlets who had a kind of Ontario-Dixie musician exchange going on. Shortly thereafter, local Rockabilly front man Ronnie Hawkins came calling to recruit Levon into his band The Hawks as the drummer to tour Ontario. Ronnie, Levon and Nell Helm reached an agreement: Levon would have their blessing, but only after his high school graduation.
Levon joined up with Ronnie Hawkins in his band The Hawks and left for Canada in 1958. The other members of The Hawks at that time were Levon's fellow southerners, bass player Jimmy Evans, Jimmy Ray Paulman on guitar and Willard "Pop" Jones on piano. Jones had a wild "kamikaze rockabilly piano" style in which the hammers popped out while playing.
Continuous touring of the honky-tonk and dive bar circuit in Ontario and the U.S. Rust Belt in a Cadillac, playing "places so tough, they make you puke twice and show your razor before they let you in the door"(4), earned The Hawks a reputation as THE Canadian Rockabilly powerhouse. Their hard work and wild antics earned them fame and women, if not riches. The Hawks were featured on Dick Clark's American Bandstand and were mobbed by teenage girls at the entrances to larger shows. They signed to Roulette Records, and recorded the album Ronnie Hawkins which enjoyed a pair of hits, "Mary Lou" and "Forty Days".
In 1960, The Hawks, with a second guitarist Fred Carter Junior, recorded a second album, Mr. Dynamo. Carter then replaced Pullman and he, in turn, was replaced by future guitar superstar Roy Buchannan. A young Canadian, Robbie Robertson, took over playing bass in 1960. Robbie was, initially, simply a fan of the group,
"This band played the fastest, most violent rock 'n' roll that I've ever heard. It was very exciting and very explosive. I loved the dynamics, the style. Anyway, it was just the way they looked. How young they were. They weren't as young as me but they were pretty young so I could relate to that. And Ronnie was like this animal, lunging around with one arm hanging down, being very Neanderthal about it, very primitive about it. I liked it a lot."(12)
By 1960 the appeal of Rockabilly was fading in favor of fresh faced pop crooners such as Dion and the Belmonts. Bass player Rebel Payne joined in 1960 so that Robbie could take over on guitar but was fired within a year for drunkenness, opening the door for another local musician Rick Danko on bass. Rink Danko recalls his first encounter with Levon upon joining The Hawks,
"They had two Cadillacs. I got in with The Hawk...the driver, Bill Avis, has us cruising down Highway 3 at maybe 75, and all of a sudden I saw car lights coming on fast behind us. I thought it was the Mounties. But no. 'Pull over, son,' Hawk said to Bill. 'That's Levon - give him plenty room!' Sure enough, in ten seconds Levon blows by us at 110, windows rolled down with bare legs sticking out. Young girls' legs. He had a beautiful '54 two-door. Filled with young women! This was Levon on his way to Grand Bend, where The Hawks were playing next. Yaa-hoooooo!!!! Away we went!"(12)
The Hawks spent the summer of 1961 playing in rough roadhouses in Grand Bend, Ontario. William "Pop" Jones left The Hawks for home and was eventually replaced by Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson on pianos.
The Hawks, by 1962, was comprised of all of the musicians who would be known as The Band. By then The Hawks grew dissatisfied with Hawkins and following Ronnie's attempt to fire Rick Danko in late 1963, left their band leader to expand their musical interests.
Initially, the ex-hawks called themselves Levon and The Hawks but failed to gain any interest with record companies in 1964. The death of Sonny Boy Williamson, following an attempted collaboration, and a Canadian drug bust, added misfortune to a stagnant year. But soon the ex-hawks would meet up with another musician of greater fame than Hawkins, who had also was expanding his musical boundaries.
Bob Dylan was by this time already one of the premiere folk musicians of the sixties and had recently made the controversial move to expand into electrified performances. Initially, he collaborated and performed with established rock musicians from The Paul Butterfield Blues Band and others. Much of Dylan's traditional fan base reacted poorly to his new direction. In 1965 Dylan hired the ex-Hawks to be his backing band and through 1966 they toured the world. The reception was mixed. At some of the larger venues, such as at the Hollywood Bowl the crowd was supportive and favorable. At others the crowd booed or were openly hostile to the band and even threw things at them.
After this long tour, Levon, bitter about the negative reaction from many of the crowds, left the band temporarily to work on an oil rig. Dylan and the rest retired to Woodstock, New York in a rented large pink house to collaborate and record with Richard Manuel playing drums. The locals in Woodstock often referred to the ex-Hawks as "The Band" and shortly Levon rejoined to share the drumming responsibilities with Manuel. The Band began its work that year in 1967, even though its members had been together for the past eight years. Where the recording industry standard was, at the time, to cut single after single in a machine-like pace, the new group spent over a year collaborating with other musicians and shaping what was to follow. Many of those recordings with Bob Dylan eventually were compiled into a collection called The Genuine Basement Tapes.
Bob Dylan grew increasingly withdrawn after a motorcycle accident in 1968. The Band, moving forward, won themselves a recording contract of their own with Capitol Records. As the psychedelic sixties were fading and the Vietnam war and the civil rights movement were intensifying, many musicians were increasingly looking away from songs about love and revolution and looking back to the heritages of folk and country music. In 1968 The Band released their first album, Music From Big Pink. It featured old-time tales of rural and southern America and was a critical success The Band immediately earned the respect and admiration of some of the biggest rock stars of the day such as George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Bernie Taupin.
Levon's standout vocal contribution on Big Pink was "The Weight" which featured the southerner's slow sympathetic and bittersweet singing style and a foot-dragging beaten-down stammer of a tempo. The Band played at the legendary Woodstock Festival and also played with Bob Dylan at The Isle of Wight Festival that year. For the most part, however, The Band was kept from touring in part from a series of accidents including Levon breaking his foot and Rick Danko breaking his neck.
Big Pink was followed up with the self-titled album, The Band. This was The Band’s landmark album. Levon's dragging tempos and his vocals in the harmonies, sounding tortured and mournful, were more prominent in songs such as "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." Levon also sung of his southern heritage on the relatively more bubbly "Rag Mama Rag" and "Up on Cripple Creek", Levon played guitar and mandolin on many of the tracks on The Band and Big Pink.
On December 7, 1970 Levon's girlfriend, actress and musician Libby Titus, gave birth to his daughter Amy Helm. Levon and Libby did not marry (although she did marry Donald Fagan). That year, The Band enjoyed their first headlining tour in support of their self-named second album, but tensions between Levon and band mate Robbie Robertson began to surface. Success, and the money that followed, began to create conflicts. The Band, like so many in that day, got into heroin. By the time the band released their third and fourth albums, Stage Fright and Cahoots, Levon felt that Robertson was trying to take more than his fair share of credit for the success of the band.
The stress of touring, the drugs and the clashing of egos also influenced the decline of band mate Richard Manuel , who began a long downward struggle with substance abuse problems. The subject matter of the songs tended to grow darker such as on "Daniel And The Sacred Harp" on which Levon sang. In between these albums, The Band spent a year on tour. Cahoots, on which Levon sang the Bob Dylan song, "When I Paint My Masterpiece", would be the last album of all original material that The Band would release for the next four years.
Between 1971 and 1975 The Band recorded a live album, The Rock of Ages, a cover album, Moondog Matinee, and then re-united with Bob Dylan for his album Planet Waves. They then released another live album, Before The Flood before they relocated to their new recording studio in California to record Northern Lights - Southern Cross. The majority of the songwriting credits for The Band's original songwriting are acredited to Robbie Robertson. Although the legitimacy of these claims are beyond the scope of this writeup, Levon openly and bitterly disputed the ownership of The Band's songwriting credits until his death.
"How do you ever figure out who wrote what when you got five guys spending every day with each other, all playing, all contributing ideas?" (4)
A year later in 1976, Robbie Robertson grew tired of touring and announced that The Band would quit following the concert/album/movie The Last Waltz. This epic concert was filmed and recorded with many guest musicians at the Winterland Ballroom on Thanksgiving. While The Last Waltz was highly regarded as one of the greatest musical documentaries to be filmed, Levon was angerly dismissive of the movie,
"You know what The Last Waltz is? The Last Rip-off! I've never gotten a check for it in my life. It was Robertson and Martin Scorsese and that fucking crowd of thieves that got paid, and they still get paid, I guess. I've never gotten a check for it in my life. What was that movie? Just a lot of self-serving tripe...Robertson had something to prove. He wanted to show that he was the leader of the Band, and that's what that movie's about: Robbie Robertson and the Band...Man, you should have seen what got pushed out of that movie to make room for Robbie taking credit for all the things he never done."(4)
Robbie Robertson wanted to discontinue touring to turn to producing and filmmaking. With the songwriting royalites, Robbie certainly could afford to do so. The Last Waltz was released as a triple album in 1978. A year earlier, The Band released a collection of odds and ends called Islands to fulfill their contract with Capitol Records. The Band, as far as Robbie Robertson was concerned, was "officially" broken up.
Levon, who claimed no intention of breaking up The Band, returned to Woodstock to build a studio and to record an album with Muddy Waters. Levon followed up that project with the album The RCO All-Stars, the self-titled Levon Helm and American Son. In 1981 he married actress Sandra Dodd whom he met poolside in Los Angeles in 1974. Perhaps bitten by the acting bug during that time, Levon began a lengthy acting carreer in 1980. Looking every bit the part of Loretta Lynn's father, Levon made his acting debut in Coal Miner's Daughter.
In 1983 The Band reunited, minus Robbie Robertson, and began to tour, but the venues were not as large nor were box office receipts as rich as in The Band's heyday. To support himself, Levon continued to record in his studio and act when called up while not on the road. Yet for band mate Rick Manuel, his downward spiral ended while on tour in 1986. After a long battle with the bottle and depression, Richard hung himself. Levon cut him down in his motel room.
Levon kept a fairly low profile for the remainder of the eighties. He played with Rick Danko in Ringo Starr's All-Star Band and with Roger Waters for his The Wall-Live in Berlin album among other projects. In 1993, Levon, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson returned to the studio to record Jericho, The Band's first album of new material since Northern Lights-Southern Cross. Levon also released his auto-biography, This Wheel's on Fire – Levon Helm and the Story of The Band. In 1995 The Band released High On The Hog which included a live performance of the late Richard Manuel recorded two months prior to his death.
As the decade drew to a close, Rick Danko died in his sleep in 1999. Rick had suffered from rapid weight gain in his last years and likely was struggling with pain from his 1968 accident. A few months prior to his death he was arrested on a heroin possession charge and pleaded with the judge that he needed it for pain. Then, Levon was dealt with his own grim prognosis.
After years of heavy smoking he had developed cancer of the larynx. Rather than being silenced forever with a laryngectomy, Levon opted for extensive radiation treatment. His treatment took many years and was ultimately successful. But for many years to come, robbed of his ability to speak or to sing, Levon retired to his home in Woodstock and to his boyhood love of country blues.
”I've got more good musical energy than I've had in my whole life. I'm back to my true calling, which is being a drummer. And I'm playing the blues, man, the real Delta blues...I'm doing the best work I've ever done. Maybe I can get back to singing again. That's a joyful thing, singing. We'll have to wait and see. But whatever happens, I might not ever fill Madison Square Garden again. That's all right with me – at least I won't be playing no zippity doodah. All I ever wanted to be was a drummer, and that's what I am."(4)
His "retirement" started out as The Barn Burners, a band recruited from the ranks of local musicians including his own daughter Amy as co-vocalist. As his treatment progressed, his voice slowly healed and by 2005 Levon began to hold The Midnight Ramble, named after those traveling country shows of his boyhood. These weekly Saturday night concerts, were sometimes held at his home, rustically called "The Barn", or at venues throughout the region.
"Levon has been in the business of making music for over forty years and if the walls of “The Barn” could talk, what stories they would tell! Music legends galore have played, jammed and recorded there and he is happily continuing that tradition. He based his Ramble Sessions on the southern medicine shows of his youth and has invited some of the most notable blues entertainers and musicians of our time to perform at The Rambles."
"Once the show starts, get ready! Levon Helm and his fellow musicians play with such joy, energy and enthusiasm, you will find it difficult not to fly out of your seat! The show is not the usual hour-and-a-half that most entertainers provide at a concert. It runs about four hours and often, Levon will greet his guests personally. His genuine warmth and the sincere desire to share his talents and love of music make for an evening that is not just unique, but an experience you will find unforgettable. You will leave smiling and, like most of us, will want to come back for more."(13)
The Midnight Ramble always included The Levon Helm Band with Levon on drums and Amy helping with the vocals. Some of Levon's guests have included Emmylou Harris, Little Sammy Davis, The Muddy Waters Band, Juther Johnson, Donald Fagan, The Mastersons, Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys, Bob Wier, Phil Lesh, Ray Wylie Hubbard and many other artists who call Levon a peer and a friend. The Midnight Ramble helped to pay for Levon's treatment but just as often the performances benefited the Catskills region that Levon had grown to love as much as his boyhood bayous and cotton fields.
"There's a sorrow - in the wind
Blowing down - the road I've been
I can hear it cry - while the shadows - steal the sun
But I cannot - look back now
I've come to far - to turn around
And there's still - a race ahead - that I must run
I'm only halfway home - I've gotta journey on
To where I'll find - find the things - that I have lost
I've come a long long road - but I've still got - some miles to go
I've got a wide - a wide river - to cross"
-Wide river To Cross
Levon's discography during the decade of his recovery is extensive and included recordings from The Midnight Ramble sessions. Dirt Farmer, released in 2007, is Levon's return to the world of music now called Americana or Roots Music. In addition to "The Mountain," written by Steve Earle, the album includes songs passed down from his parents, "The Girl Left Behind" and "Little Birds," The Stanley Brothers', "False Hearted Lover Blues," Paul Kennerley's "A Train Robbery," Buddy and Julie Miller's "Wide River To Cross" and Lauralyn Dossett's "Anna Lee." Much of the album has the feel of an intimate, small string band with upright bass, piano, mandolin, and fiddle accompanying Levons gentle drumming. The vocal harmonies of Levon, Amy and Theressa Williams are the real standouts of the album. Many of these songs give me goose bumps and tightens my throat when I hear them.
Dirt Farmer won a Grammy in 2008 for Best traditional Folk Album. He continued to release live recordings from The Midnight Ramble and in 2009, followed up Dirt Farmer with Electric Dirt. Amy Helm, her husband Jay Collins and Theressa Williams are joined by many others to provide the rich harmonies on the album. The arrangements are rich and jubilant many with horns and other accompaniments. If Dirt Farmer is an intimate evening family jam, Electric dirt is a party held with friends and neighbors out on the lawn the next day. My favorite standouts included the lush minstrel-esque horn and string arrangements on "Tenessee Jed" and "I wish I Knew How It Feels To Be Free", the soulfully slow gospel of Pop Staple's "Move Alonging Train", Happy Traum's "Golden Bird," and the gentle waltz of Carter Stanley's White Dove.
Electric Dirt won Americana album of the year in 2010. Levon was awarded his third Grammy in 2011 with the live album Ramble at The Ryman which was recorded at Nashville's historic Ryman Auditorium, original home of The Grand Ole Opry, on September 17, 2008. The Levon Helm band shared the stage with guests Buddy Miller, John Hiatt, Sheryl Crow, George Receli, Sam Bush and Billy Bob Thornton.
Levon continued his ramble right through to his last days in 2012. Within a month of his death he was touring the Midwest with his band and then returned for a final performance at "the barn" on March 31 with guests Los Lobos before his family announced that Levon was fighting his last with the cancer that returned. Shortly thereafter, Levon's long earthly ramble reached the end of the road and he crossed that wide river. After a private funeral on April 27, 2012, he was buried in Woodstock Cemetery next to Rick Danko.
"Levon Helm passed peacefully this afternoon. He was surrounded by family, friends and band mates and will be remembered by all he touched as a brilliant musician and a beautiful soul"-The Helm Family
References and Links
(1)Helm, Levon. This Wheels on Fire-Levon Helm and The Story of The Band
Many thanks to RedOmega, NanceMuse, Dannye and fool4luv for proofreading and contributions!