Levon Helm, who died in New York on April 19, age 71, from the cancer that he had been fighting for more than a decade, was one of the most celebrated rock drummers of the last 50 years. He uniquely embodied two sets of folk memories in his music, one of the pop culture of the 1960s, and another of an older, lost America of dirt farmers, train robbers and civil war veterans scratching out the foundations of the republic. And somehow he managed to do this all while continually winning the passionate devotion of new fans in our linked but atomistic nation almost until the moment he died.
Mark Lavon “Levon” Helm was born to a family of farmers in Arkansas in 1940 and started playing with local groups while he was still at school. He joined the band of Ronnie Hawkins, a Canadian rockabilly singer who was popular in the south; when Hawkins moved back to Toronto, Helm went along, and was soon joined by local musicians Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko. After breaking with Hawkins, the band became Bob Dylan’s backing musicians, as Dylan made his epochal switch from folk music to electric rock. When Dylan moved to Woodstock, New York, after his motorcycle accident in 1966, the band recorded hours of tapes with him in the Catskills town. Initially, Helm wasn’t with them; disillusioned with music, he’d gone back to Arkansas, but when The Band, as they were now known, got a recording contract, the other members summoned him north again. Together, they put together one of the seminal works of popular music.
Music from Big Pink — the famous house in Woodstock where the boys played and lived — came at just the right time. In Britain, getting ready for college, I must have heard it first in the fall of 1968, when if you had any sort of soul you knew that rock music was taking a turn for the worse. The fun, smart, three-minute-at-most stuff that we’d listened and danced to for years was being ousted by the “progressive rock” of bands whose names one shudders to remember, full of a thin pretentiousness; listening to it was like reading a John Fowles novel that never ends. Big Pink was different. Knowing nothing about its tangled roots in musical forms from soul to country to gospel and R&B, there was something wonderful about the way its songs were at easy on the ear, rhythmically complex — that was Levon — and, the same time, just bloody strange (right: The Weight).
My friends and I were completely hooked. We listened to Big Pink and The Band’s second “brown” album until we knew every note and drum beat by heart, and when Stage Fright arrived in Britain in 1970, two of us raced to the local music store in Oxford to hear it in a soundproof cubicle (yes, kids, that’s how we once did consumer testing), nervous that it might be a fall from grace. As if. Have you listened to “The Shape I’m In” lately?
After three years of obsessing about The Band, I finally got to see them at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1971, an extraordinary night which had the useful side benefit of reducing my girlfriend’s bragging rights. (She’d seen The Band accompany Dylan at the legendary 1969 Isle of Wight Festival, as she reminds me to this day.) But inevitably with time, my passion faded a bit. More albums came, I bought all of them, bought them again on CD, watched Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Waltz, but was no more than vaguely aware that Helm and Robbie Robertson had had a bitter falling out. Manuel committed suicide, Danko died in Woodstock, and it seemed as if the story of The Band was going to turn into one of those all-too-common, dark chapters in the history of rock.
Then, a few years ago, a friend mentioned to me that Levon, who had survived a serious bout with cancer and for a while lost his voice, was in the habit of getting a knockout band together on Saturday nights in the barn-cum-recording-studio at his Woodstock house. My wife and I went up the river. And all I can say is: if you were one of the lucky ones who caught a Midnight Ramble, good for you; if you never did, shoot yourself. “In decades of dogged concert-going,” my friend Clive Crook wrote in the Financial Times in 2009, “this reviewer cannot remember an evening as uplifting or as satisfying.”
Before an audience of about 150 crammed into the barn — hipsters up from the city mixed with locals with a lot of off-road miles on their clock, members of both groups slipping out into the country air for a smoke — Levon led a band of all the talents. There was Dylan’s long-time guitarist Larry Campbell and his wife, the singer Teresa Williams; Levon’s daughter Amy; keyboardist Brian Mitchell; the best horn section ever; and guests like Steve Earle, Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen, Graham Parker, and countless more. One evening last year, as four hours of music drew to an end, an enormous bear-like figure shambled on to the stage, white beard halfway down his chest, and took to the piano for the Ramble’s traditional closing number, which was, of course, “The Weight.” That was Hudson, then 73.
What made the evenings memorable, though, was not just the music. It was the happiness. (Everyone was encouraged to bring a dish to a potluck that we all ate outside, so the Rambles were half-revival show, half-picnic.) And there was not the slightest doubt who made everyone feel so good. Levon, grinning like a cat who’d found a pail of the thickest cream in the Catskills, sat to one side of the stage (except there wasn’t a stage — you sat on top of the musicians) driving the band through New Orleans blues and rags, rockabilly, Band songs, covers of the Grateful Dead and Dylan, and traditional folk numbers. In later years, he didn’t sing much — the cancer, I guess, was never really licked — but he hummed and murmured, picked up the mandolin every now and again, and just spread an air of infectious joy over the whole proceedings. Once my wife and I nervously took our world-wise daughters, then 21 and 19, to a Ramble — Levon’s 70th birthday party, as it happened. They quickly tagged this whole Woodstock deal as their parents’ aging hippie thing, so I was a bit apprehensive when I asked them at the end how it had all gone down. No worries: “Awesome!”
The band that Levon put together for the Rambles produced three albums: Dirt Farmer, Electric Dirt, and last year, Ramble at the Ryman, recorded in Nashville. Each of them won a Grammy, insofar as that mattered. What really counted was that a whole new audience was finding a voice that managed to be sorrowful one moment, fun the next, rolling through old ballads from the eastern mountains, new songs about events long ago, clever takes on Band classics and a heartbreaking version of Buddy Miller’s “Wide River to Cross.” You should buy them all.
A while ago, after a particularly epic Ramble, I decided that if one man and his friends could reliably make so many people find joy, I wanted as much of it as I could. So I’d buy a house in Woodstock. I found just the place, too, an 18th century farmhouse on the edge of town, a bit knocked about, with deer munching in a backyard that must have been a petri dish for Lyme disease, but with floors and bookshelves made from a dark, old, cherry tree. My family, who are much more sensible than me, pointed out that the whole idea was nuts, and I reluctantly agreed.
Still and all, it was a mistake. If I’d gone mad that weekend, we would all have had a few more evenings remembering how magical popular music can be, before Levon Helm crossed his own wide river.