The other night I was sitting on the sofa when the voice of Levon Helm wafted from the other room. The Hayfoot was watching a video clip of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Instinctively I got up and went into the bedroom, where we watched it lying down. Like so many other songs sung by Helm–“Up on Cripple Weight,” “Don’t Do It,” The Weight”–it never fails to move. Sadly, the voice has been silenced; Helm died of throat cancer in New York City on Thursday. The drummer was born in the Mississippi Delta town of Elaine, Arkansas and grew up in nearby Helena. When he was a teenager Helm became the percussionist for Ronnie Hawkins. The two Arkansans eventually ended up north of the border and playing in a unit known as Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks. After breaking off from Hawkins, the unit morphed into Levon Helm and the Hawks. Soon they were backing Bob Dylan just as the Hawks. Eventually the five members of the group–Helm, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson–went out on their own as simply…The Band.
The group released its first album, Music From Big Pink, in July 1968. Big Pink was the group’s rented communal house in upstate New York. The album is notable for many reasons. First, it was a fully realized piece of work, created by musicians who had already woodshedded for a number of years. Released during the worst excesses of the Age of Aquarius, Big Pink manages to avoid the indulgences of the era. The reason for this, I believe, is because Helm especially was so grounded the American Songbook. You can’t have been a musician growing up in the Mississippi Delta in the 1940s and 1950s and not absorb its traditions. The first music group Helm saw in person was Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys in 1946, the incarnation of that band that included Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. He was six years old. Helm later saw Elvis play in person several times–Memphis being less than an hour’s drive from Helena–before the man who would be King was a cultural phenomenon.
Tradition meant a great deal to Helm and to everyone in The Band. 1968 was a year of turmoil throughout the world. A short list of incidents include: the Tet Offensive, the assassination of Martin Luther King Junior and subsequent rioting in hundreds of American cities, the Events of May in Paris that almost overthrew the French government, and the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in June. And that is just the first six months of the year. At a time when the battle cry for many baby boomers was “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” the group members pointedly posed with their extended family wearing their finest for what would be a widely disseminated group photo. Roots.
The Band’s original incarnation dissolved in 1976 after the famous Winterland concert filmed by Martin Scorsese and released as The Last Waltz in 1978. The breakup was probably inevitable given the tension, creative and otherwise, between Mr. Helm and Mr. Robertson. Helm later went on the road with other iterations of the lineup but to less effect. He was first diagnosed with cancer in the late 1990s and fought the disease, with periods of remission, up until the end. Helm was always an active musician, but in part to pay his medical expenses he was especially productive over the last several years of his life. Two of his finest efforts came during this period: Dirt Farmer (2007) and Electric Dirt (2009). He was proof positive that a rock star can age gracefully if he acts his age and stays himself.
With some artists it is just a lifelong thing. Thankfully for us.