Last Thursday Levon Helm lost his long fought battle with throat cancer. The news came quickly with a disappointed, sometimes subdued surprise from many fans and friends. After several years in remission and recovery, Helm, 71, had kept active and staged a career revival that was marked by three Grammys for solo albums and Americana Music Award honors for his devotion to roots music. His weekly concerts at his Woodstock home, called the Midnight Ramble, which featured special guests like Emmylou Harris, Dr. John, Elvis Costello, Kris Kristofferson, Donald Fagan, Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, Norah Jones and Justin Townes Earle, became the final chapter in his 50-year career. The Ramble began small and underground, with help from his Woodstock neighbors, but it was important enough to see Helm’s return to the concert stage for thousands to make the trek to upstate New York over the years.
The Rambles and the breadth of his solo career and tours may ensure Helm his own solo spotlight in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in the years to come. The Rambles began in 2004 following his successful recovery from surgery. He was diagnosed with throat cancer in the late ’90s, which was followed by radiation treatments and the eventual removal of a tumor from his throat. But it left his vocal chords damaged, causing him to speak in raspy whisper. As the Midnight Rambles began at his home in Woodstock, he played drums but declined singing, depending instead on guest vocalists. But, in what could easily be considered and true rock ‘n’ roll miracle his soulful tenor voice returned on January 10, 2004. By 2007 he was able to begin production on his first post-cancer surgery album, Dirt Farmer. By that time the Rambles had become weekly sell-outs. Eventually he would tour and release two more solo albums. All three solo albums would win Grammys. In 2008 he was also honored as Artist of the Year by Nashville’s Americana Music Awards. This prompted the release of his last solo album, Midnight Ramble Live at the Ryman, which became a symbol of his greatest success where he brought his show to the site of the original Grand Ole Opry. On songs like the Band classic, “Ophelia,” and “Chest Fever,” the soul of his voice and drums are in full force.
Tracing Helms path from the beginning is like following the footsteps of the origins rock ‘n’ roll in the American south. Born on May 26, 1940, in Elaine, Arkansas he was the second of four children. His father was a cotton farmer and musician. His family’s weekly entertainment included listening to the Grand Ole Opry and to Sonny Boy Williamson and his King Biscuit Entertainers on the radio. He saw Bill Monroe in person when he was six years old. A few years later, he would also see Sonny Boy Williamson.
Levon’s father bought him his first guitar when he was nine. He and younger sister, Linda, who played bass, began playing live in their hometown as “Lavon and Linda.”
Seeing Elvis in 1954 in Helena, Arkansas would forever change his 14-year-old soul. This was before Elvis had a drummer. When he saw Elvis the next year, with D.J. Fontanta on drums and Bill Black on electric bass, he found himself in the stream of a new form of music. He was hearing the music of Bill Monroe and Sonny Boy Williamson joined together in one passionate wave of what soon became known as rockabilly. He began taking the idea of drums seriously after seeing Jerry Lee Lewis’ drummer, Jimmy Van Eaton, live. At 17 he was invited to sit in with Conway Twitty, Arkansas’ first real rockabilly artist, who took a shine to Helm.
In 1957, Levon Helm would meet Ronnie Hawkins, another popular local rockabilly star, who was embarking on a tour of Canada where his music was gathering steam. He was hired as his drummer for the tour. Soon, Helm became a regular in Hawkins’ band, the Hawks. By 1959 Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks scored two hits with “Forty Days” and “Mary Lou,” and an appearance on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.”
In the early ’60s rockabilly and much of the momentum of the revolution that began with Elvis had slowed down in favor of teen idols and mediocre pre-fabricated music. However, rockabilly remained popular in Canada prompting Hawkins and Helm to recruit four Canadian musicians, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, and Robbie Robertson. Hawkins worked the band hard over the years. What began as a crash course in rock ‘n’ roll soon became an uprising with Levon and his friends breaking off from Ronnie to become Levon and the Hawks.
As the Hawks made their way through American cities in the mid-’60s their reputation led them on an inevitable collision path with another rock ‘n’ roll revolution. This time, Levon Helm found himself a force in the river of change as he and his Canadian friends joined Bob Dylan to help him bring a more electric blues-based sound to his music. The collaboration would change the course of popular music forever. The years with Dylan were sometimes rocky, with constant boos and insults from audiences, which caused Helm to leave the band for a time; he returned after Dylan was involved in a near fatal motorcycle accident and brought the band with him to recoup and regain his strength,in Woodstock, New York.
The time in Woodstock would prove to be another pivotal moment in the history of rock music as well as Levon’s career. They began to explore the roots of American music. Drawing from traditional country, blues, folk, and jazz, they would also write original songs that captured the same emotions as the music that inspired them. Eventually, it was not Dylan who made a mark, but his band. While Dylan returned with his low-key folk-rock focused release, John Wesley Harding, the Hawks, who by now had adapted the simple name, the Band, released Music From Big Pink. The album went counter to the psychedelic rebellion of the late-’60s, focusing on a unique blend of country, rock, and blues. It stood everything on its head in the music industry going gold even before it was released based on pre-orders. It was Levon’s voice that would be out in front on the hit song “The Weight.”
The legacy of the Band may have become a “weight” on all of its members after the release of their second, self-titled album. As they toured and their popularity gained momentum, a power struggle would ensue that would last for decades between Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson. After years of touring and supporting Dylan’s comeback tour in 1974, the Band played their last concert with Robertson in 1976, immortalized on film as The Last Waltz. Directed by Martin Scorsese, the filming itself became a marathon show that included many of the most famous people in rock at the time. A story that symbolizes Levon’s devotion to the roots of rock ‘n’ roll occurred during the filming of the movie-concert. Robertson had just produced an album for pop-singer Neil Diamond. He decided to include him in the film. When Scorsese and Robertson were contemplating cutting legendary bluesman, Muddy Waters, out of the concert because of time constraints, Levon shouted at both men, “You want to cut somebody, cut that goddamn Neil Diamond!!”
In the years that followed The Last Waltz, Helm, Manuel, Danko, and Hudson found themselves cut out of the publishing profits of the Band. However, Helm didn’t sign over the rights to the name. As a result, they were able to reunite the Band in the early ’80s. They continued to tour and record. Richard Manuel would commit suicide on the road. But, Levon, Rick Danko, and Garth Hudson would continue and record three Band albums. When Danko died in 1993, the Band finally did their real last waltz and quietly disbanded.
When Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer in the late ’90s, what seemed like an end only became a beginning. As Christian Science Monitor writer Mark Guarino recently reported about one of the first Midnight Rambles in 2004, “The phenomenon of the Midnight Ramble, as Helm called the Saturday evening house parties, reflected Helm’s unique down home sensibilities.” He wrote, “When it came time for the music, Helm emerged from a back room gleaming, shaking hands with the 100 people tucked around the room on folding chairs. Despite his age – and persistent throat troubles – he snapped at the drums with fierce strength while singing with emotive depth and tender inflections.”
“It’s certainly a miracle for me and a dream come true. I never thought I would sing and play like I used to be able to do. I thank God. Every song is a celebration for me,” Helm said at the time.
It wasn’t long before the New York Times broke the news about the Midnight Rambles and they began to sell out weekly. The rest is rock ‘n’ roll history with Levon and a band that included his daughter, touring nationally and playing before thousands at Tennessee’s famous festival Bonnaroo.
As he began, Levon Helm’s ended in life leaving a lasting mark on the music he loved. In his first days he joined in with the rockabilly movement of the ’50s, the folk-rock revolution of the ’60s, and he is now considered a founding father of Americana music.
When the news of his illness came last week, the feeling I had was sadness but not so much despair. It was more like the feeling I had recently when I witnessed a glorious sunset over the Pacific ocean. Like Levon Helms’ legacy of music, it was a thing to behold. Slowly, as the darkness began to descend, there was the realization that this moment would soon end. There was a sadness, but there was also a great appreciation for the beauty and glory of that single moment. It was the same feeling when I knew Levon’s end was near. I still feel that same kind of sadness. This glorious life is gone just like that ocean sunset. When another member of the Band died they said, “On the day you were born, the angels sang and Rick Danko was singing harmony.” Today, I think Levon Helm is providing the steady backbeat.