EDITORIAL: Levon Helm
LEVON HELM died Thursday at the age of 71, marking the end of a peculiarly American journey.
Helm’s musical career is among the most-storied in modern American music and had some striking paradoxes.
The Band, with which he made the mark for which he will forever be most remembered, took rock music back to its deepest, most distinctively American place. Yet, he was the group’s only American.
Helm was a rural Arkansan, the beneficiary of having grown up in the Mississippi Delta, an area as washed over by American musical genres as by the flood waters of the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers. Yet, he chose to embrace Woodstock and the Hudson Valley as his home.
The Hudson Valley returned the embrace, making Helm as much of a native as the son of a Southern cotton farmer could be.
And, then, there was the voice.
HELM was a talented and creative drummer, but it was with his voice that he made his most indelible impression on American music. The first time you heard it, you were sure you had heard it many times before. It was hauntingly familiar, seeming to spring from somewhere deep in the soul of America.
The paradox? That this marvelous musical instrument was struck silent in the late 1990s by throat cancer.
The toll wasn’t only vocal. Helm had trouble making his bills and foreclosure proceedings were begun on his Woodstock home.
Of that dire situation was born the Midnight Rambles, intimate performances at Helm’s home that staved off financial ruin. Continued...
The Rambles seamlessly became such a steady part of the region’s musical landscape that hardly anyone noticed the moment that this great star, whose greatest instrument had been silenced, had unselfconsciously turned himself into the area’s house band.
Suffice it to say that Helm got by with a little help from his friends, attracting a steady stream of remarkably accomplished musicians to the home.
The Ramble became a fixture of the regional music scene and scoring a ticket, while certainly quite possible, was still somewhat of a coup. Broadway may have had “Cats” and “The Phantom of the Opera.” But the Hudson Valley had the Midnight Rambles.
Eventually, Helm’s strength and voice returned and the Rambles gave rise to new feats of musicality, including a remarkable three Grammy Awards in five years for albums – “Dirt Farmer” in 2007, “Electric Dirt” in 2009, and “Ramble at the Ryman” in 2011.
That last Grammy, it should be noted, came some 54 years after Helm began playing with the band of rockabilly pioneer Ronnie Hawkins, a fellow Arkansan.
IT was Hawkins’ move to Canada that brought Helm together with Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson. The five went on to back Bob Dylan as he turned in 1965 from acoustical to electric music, then struck out on their own in the late 1960s to form The Band.
Robertson and Manuel wrote much of the group’s material and their musicianship – including the vocal duties – was truly that of a mutually generous ensemble. But, as New York Times music critic Jon Pareles put it in Helm’s obituary, “particularly when lyrics turned to myths and full tales of the American South – like ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,’ ‘Ophelia’ and ‘Mama Rag’ – the lead went to Mr. Helm, with his Arkansas twang and a voice that could sound desperate, ornery and amused at the same time.”
Not to mention “The Weight” and “Cripple Creek.”
Helm, Pareles wrote, was “the American linchpin.” Continued...
LEVON HELM will be missed by the music world, to be sure, but particularly by his local friends and neighbors.
He was very much a part of the community, willing and eager to give back to his adopted home.
It won’t be just his music that will be remembered by those with whom he came into contact.
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