April 19, 2022, marks the tenth anniversary of Levon Helm’s passing. A decade later his music still casts a large influential shadow on musicians and fans of all ages. That influence includes his incredible solo work and his work with the seminal Rock group, The Band. In April 2012, I remember in the immediate aftermath of Levon’s death reading so many eloquent statements about his music and his character. In particular, Writer Bill Flanagan moved me greatly when he made the following statement on the program CBS This Morning April 2012: “In the whole history of Rock and Roll no one had a greater encore, ever, than Levon Helm.”
I share Mr. Flanagan’s observation for a variety of reasons, many of which I will further articulate in the course of this article. Here I want to talk about what made Levon Helm unique as a man and an artist and why that remains an influence on myself and others. Along the way, I will offer some observations on some choice shows by Levon Helm and The Band that I was lucky enough to have seen.
Importantly, during our shared “down” period I read a book that accomplished part of what I want to say here about Levon and more. The book is entitled Levon by Sandra B. Tooze (2020, Diversion Books). Ms. Tooze has written the definitive book about Levon Helm. She also wrote a stunning book about Muddy Waters entitled,Muddy Waters: The Mojo Man (ECW Press, 1997).
Levon had worked with Muddy, co-producing The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album in 1975. In addition, Muddy was a featured guest at The Band’s 1976 Farewell Concert, The Last Waltz, a concert that was captured on a film of the same name by filmmaker Martin Scorsese.
The books written by Sandra Tooze about Levon and Muddy Waters have garnered deserved critical praise. They are considered to be seminal books about these two important American musicians and they both have homes in your local libraries. The interviews and interactions Ms. Tooze had with Levon Helm led to her being inspired to write a book entirely about Levon.
Tooze’s book Levon stands tall with books about The Band & Levon. Books such Levon’s autobiography, This Wheel’s On Fire (With Stephen Davis, Originally Published in 1993 by William Morrow & Company) and the 1993 epic book about The Band, Across the Great Divide by Barney Hoskyns (1993, Hyperion Books) were strong predecessors to Ms. Tooze’s work. I look forward to future books by Sandra B. Tooze.
Specifically, I recommend the book Levon for the Helm/Band fan. It covers new information about Levon during the period when The Band backed up Bob Dylan and Levon’s crucial work with the Post-Band group, The Barnburners. In this book the recollections of Levon’s friends, family and colleagues paint a picture of a delightful man and a talented musician. He was a man who inspired loyalty.
As we approach the tenth anniversary of Levon’s death, I was motivated to write about Levon Helm because his music and the music of The Band have remain part of my weekly listening experience; For almost every decade of my existence the music of The Band have influenced my own approach and taste in music. That influence covers a time frame from about the time I was 16 to the present. I was originally going to do just a review of Ms. Tooze’s book, but I also wanted to explain some of the continuing infinity that I have for Levon’s work and why he is irreplaceable in American music, even 10 years later.
Levon Helm was born on May 26, 1940 in Elaine, Arkansas. He was raised in Turkey Scratch, which is a hamlet of Marvel, Arkansas. This is a large part of the affinity that I have for Levon. My Father was raised within about a hundred mile hair away in Hinsdale, Arkansas.
I hear the timbre and accent of my Father’s voice in Levon Helm’s speaking and singing voice, a voice that makes me feel close to a home I lost many decades ago with my Father’s death. The sound of Levon Helm’s voice was the sound of the Arkansas Delta. A Delta as pertinent historically as the one in Mississippi, where Rockabilly, Blues and Country collided together and created a child named Rock and Roll.
There is an Arkansas family legend amongst some of my Cousins on my Father’s side of the family, that as children my Father climbed trees with the King Of Arkansas Rockabilly, Ronnie Hawkins. I have never been able to fully verify that story, but it leads to another point in my affinity with Levon. Ronnie Hawkins, was Levon’s first bandleader. Levon joined Ronnie on Drums and occasional vocals in the late 1950’s.
As Levon Helm’s music traversed my adolescence into my adulthood, Levon himself traversed a broad range of American music in the decades framing his career. As stated, he started with the Rockabilly of Hawkins. Leaving Hawkins, Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko transformed themselves into the best White Blues band in America as Levon & The Hawks. Their skill in this form caught the attention of Bluesmen like Sonny Boy Williamson II and John Hammond Jr. Even more crucially to the progression of their career, they caught the attention of Bob Dylan.
Their work with Bob Dylan was the best Rock and Roll could offer the world in the mid-1960’s. They got booed by Folk purist fans because Dylan went “electric.” Those boos led to Levon taking a short hiatus from the group, before the mean and brutal 1966 World Tour.
Levon reunited with his band mates in 1967. The work Band did together, often in partnership with Bob Dylan, is the seed of what we now call Americana. The Band were the Fathers of Americana as their music was an amalgamation of the best of America’s music.
The genres of Blues, Country, Rock and Roll, Jazz, New Orleans R&B, among others, found their way into The Band’s sounds. Those influences were fully realized on their debut album, Music From Big Pink, and even more so in the stunning, self titled follow up, The Band.
Stating it succinctly, The Band, four Canadians and an American, profoundly influenced by the music of America, created their own version of an aural America. But it was Levon that provided The Band with their authenticity. Coming from the American South, it was the real deal.
In their beginnings, The Band was a truly diplomatic group. They had three distinct singers in Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel. Where Levon was the heart of the group; Richard was the Soul.
Richard remains my favorite singer of the three. Between the five of them, they were masters of about 23 instruments. Robbie Robertson was inspired by a lot of the stories that Levon told.
Many of the songs of The Band were based on the Southern Folklore that surrounded Levon as he grew up in Arkansas. As this article is a celebration of the legacy of Levon Helm, we will not address any of the controversy in regards to his relationship to Robbie Robertson. Merely a mention and nothing more.
The times that I saw The Band or Levon perform were some of the greatest concerts that I have ever seen. The first time was when I saw The Band perform was on a three act bill in 1973 at the Watkins Glen Racetrack, in upstate New York. I was in a crowd of over six hundred thousand. The other two acts were the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers. But I was there to see The Band, more than anyone else. The creativity that was within those five guys still remains an ideal in the creation and performance of my own music. A touchstone, even today.
In 1974, I saw The Band back up Bob Dylan. Still in my top five Rock and Roll shows. I wrote about this concert previously in the May 2021 PolitiChicks article, Bob Dylan At 80. I was amazed that night of how great of a back-up band they were behind Dylan. That was further articulated less two years later at their 1976 Last Waltz farewell concert where they backed up a myriad of different artists, one I wish I had seen.
After the Last Waltz, Levon formed Levon Helm & the RCO All Stars, with Dr. John and Paul Butterfield, among others. The RCO All Stars recorded an incredibly underrated album for ABC-Dunhill and regrettably broke up. Levon started recording a series of solo albums that all had their own sense of charm and character.
Robbie Robertson was always interested in film, starring in an evocative film, Carny in 1980. But to everyone’s surprise, Levon Helm had a second career as a film actor. Unlike many musicians who attempt acting, and then fall short, Levon Helm was a natural actor who elevated any film he was a part of. His work in films such as Coal Miner’s Daughter, The Right Stuff and In the Electric Mist, among several, are some of my favorite films.
I didn’t see The Band again until after they reformed in 1983 without Robbie Robertson. They seemed a little disjointed initially. Tragically, with the 1986 suicide of Singer Richard Manuel, they were robbed of their greatest voice. It was not until the early 1990’s, with the addition of Keyboardist/Vocalist, Richard Bell, and the addition of Drummer/Vocalist, Randy Ciarlante, that they were able to capture some of their former glory. I saw two shows in 1994, in New Orleans, with this line-up. Great shows.
The original version of The Band recorded for Capitol Records. The reformed Band, recorded three noteworthy albums on smaller, independent labels. These three albums, Jericho, High On the Hog and Jubilation were fine records and all deserved much more notice from the music industry, press and fans.
Levon Helm was always a distinct singer and played apt mandolin, harmonica. In addition, he was a great guitar player. But one of Levon Helm’s greatest contributions to music was as one of Rock and Roll’s greatest in-the-pocket drummers. The influence of Levon Helm’s drumming style still inspires up and coming and veteran drummers alike. The fact that he maintained a consistently funky, fatback style of drumming, while singing powerfully on top of that, still amazes me. Many of his beats, like the intro to Up On Cripple Creek, continue to be influential samples on many Rap records.
Around the time of the recording of the album Jubilation, Levon Helm’s singing voice started shutting down. He had a hoarseness he could not shake.
Around this time, Levon was diagnosed with throat cancer. A lifetime industrial strength smoker, Levon quit smoking and went through a series of brutal radiation treatments. For a period of time, Levon’s voice was a mere whisper. But Dr. Dennis Kraus and the fine staff at New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center helped save Levon’s life. They gave him an opportunity for the first stage of an extended and unexpected encore of life.
Starting in the Spring of 1998, Levon, in partnership with an investor, started a club on Decatur Street in New Orleans called Levon Helm’s Classic American Café. Their grand opening was on New Years. I went to this club a few months after it’s opening. With it grand mural of the Mississippi River, framed by paintings of musical figures like Bessie Smith and Sonny Boy Williamson, this was a grand two tier club.
With his decimated singing voice, Levon formed a band with his Vocalist Daughter, Amy Helm, Harmonica Player Chris O’Leary, Guitarist Pat O’Shea, and Bassist Frank Ingrao. They were called Levon Helm and the Barn Burners. In essence, they were the house band for Levon’s club, a Blues band.
In the 55 plus years, that I have been going to Blues shows, I have seen great Blues bands; From Howlin’ Wolf to Albert King, among many, The Barn Burners were a great Blues band who stood tall with the classic Blues groups I have seen. I watched them until about 4:30 in the morning, great band, great club. Amy Helm and Chris O’Leary aptly fronted the band on vocals. The Barn Burners, until Sandra Tooze’s book, have been unjustly ignored in many accounts of Levon’s history. Regretfully, Levon’s club closed down a few mere weeks after I saw this show.
On a side note: Amy Helm was an Angel to Levon when he was getting radiation treatments and is a great musician, writer and a stunning singer. A fine artist who continues her Father’s tradition. Chris O’Leary is touring with a band under his own name that plays Blues, Soul, New Orleans grooves and occasional songs associated with Levon. A great band. I wrote about Chris in the April 2016 PolitiChicks article, Chris O’Leary Honorable Vet, Dedicated Bluesman.
Because of medical bills and other financial hardships, Levon had to declare bankruptcy a few time along the way. His fortunes took an an upswing when he got Barbara Obrien as his Manager. O’Brien and Helm got his finances somewhat untangled. They starting putting on concerts in Levon’s barn that they called The Midnight Rambles, the title of which was more than a passing nod to the medicine shows of Levon’s Arkansas youth.
Here is where the extended encore, discussed previously, kicks into an even higher gear. Levon’s voice started coming back! He and his management negotiated a record contract with the Vanguard label, a classic Roots label. He demonstrated he was back the 2007 Grammy Award Winning Album, Dirt Farmer. Helm followed that up with the award winning, Electric Dirt (2009) and Ramble at the Ryman (2011, Live).
Regrettably, Levon Helm’s cancer returned and he succumbed to that illness on April 19, 2012. Levon Helm needs to be lauded 10 years after his death for a variety of reasons: He beat addiction and illness through his own fortitude and the care of loved ones. He never showed the white feather of self pity, whether through illness, addiction or financial hardship. His early Christian Faith came out during his illness and his testimony was a powerful one.
He created one of the most distinct musical styles, musical and vocally, yet he maintained his humility. His sense of humor was as legendary as was his humanity. He played many charities as a citizen of Woodstock. He also played concerts, with his Daughter Amy, at the Children’s Cancer Ward at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. He stated, those were some of his favorite shows. I see no replacement for Levon Helm, even 10 years later.
My friend, Mary London Szpara, in the immediate aftermath of Levon’s death in 2012, wrote the following poem that I am including here as an appropriate closer. I wrote about Mary in the October 2021 PolitiChicks article, Book Review: The Loss World By Mary London Szpara. Mary’s poem is as follows:
Levon Helm: This One’s For You
The curtain now had fallen
The spotlight had gone dim
I saw an orb come floating down
I wondered if it’s him.
I hovered over a microphone
Where a drum kit once had rest
I closed my eyes, I heard that voice
He quietly whispered “test.”
Then he launched into Ophelia
The Weight…the songs swirled ‘round
The circle that had broken
Its pieces on the ground.
The silence filled the venue
The orb rose slowly up
It dipped as though it bowed its head
Then I heard the room erupt.
Cheering, whistles, laughter!
The welcome had begun
For Levon Helm was in the realm
His time on Earth was done.
Mary London Szpara, Playing From the Heart: Levon Helm: This one’s for you
Originally published in itsallabouttheguitar.blogspot.com, April 19, 2012