Levon Helm, a member of influential rock group The Band, died in New York City on Thursday. The drummer, singer and actor, who backed Bob Dylan as he turned away from folk toward a more electrified rock sound, was 71 years old. Though Helm suffered from cancer for several years, he was known later in his life for Midnight Rambles, concerts he hosted at his barn in Woodstock, N.Y.
At the audio link, you can listen to a remembrance of Helm's life reported by NPR's Felix Contreras. That report includes the voice of critic Will Hermes, who wrote this appreciation.
The first time I saw Levon Helm perform, it was already late in the game. It was the '90s, and the soulful singing drummer was touring with the remains of The Band — as in The Band, who backed up Bob Dylan during his first electric tour in the mid-'60s, then famously decamped with him to Woodstock, N.Y., where they recorded hours of offhandedly brilliant, rough-and-tumble folk-rock that would later be released as The Basement Tapes.
The Band also began recording music without Dylan, music that changed the shape of rock 'n' roll, veering it off the psychedelic highway that The Beatles and others were traveling and driving it down a dirt road, deep into the woods of America's history, mythology and tangled cultural roots.
Missing from the particular show I attended, which took place at a roadhouse in Minneapolis called The Cabooze, was Robbie Robertson, the guitarist and songwriter who remained estranged from the group after the chapter-closing Scorsese-directed documentary The Last Waltz, and Richard Manuel, the tortured singer/pianist who committed suicide in 1986. It could've been one of those sad jukebox concerts, but it wasn't. Alongside his pals Rick Danko and Garth Hudson, Helm played his Promethean grooves, those superpowered shuffles with their wicked backbeats and ever-shifting focus, the kind of flesh-and-blood timekeeping even the most brilliant drum programmer will never match.
And he sang those songs: "The Weight," "Up On Cripple Creek," "Ophelia" — songs that he owned by virtue of his voice, which was as indelible and unmistakable as his drum style. It was like seeing the Rockies or the Grand Canyon, and the fact that I was seeing it in a glorified bar and not Carnegie Hall or some such temple (where surely this Great American Music deserved to be, if any did) made the experience even more powerful.
Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer not long after that tour. He underwent radiation treatment, and like many Americans who have to pay out of pocket for their health care, he ran into financial trouble. At one point he was in serious danger of losing his home in Woodstock, where he'd settled after his days with Dylan. And this began one of the most remarkable second acts in rock history. Needing to raise money, but too frail to tour, Helm began giving concerts in the barn-cum-recording studio attached to his house, inviting local and visiting musicians to join him. He also asked guests to bring drinks and a dish, making each show a potluck feast. He called them Rambles.
At first, he was unable to sing. But the cancer treatment was working, and as his throat healed, he began singing again. At the first Ramble I attended, back in 2005, Helm's old friend Emmylou Harris sat in, and the two sang "Evangeline," a song they did decades earlier on The Last Waltz LP. "I thought those good days were behind me," he told me a couple of days after that show. "So you can bet Saturday night was the celebration of a miracle in my little life."
Helm got back on his feet financially and physically, and the Ramble became a regular event. People came from around the world to hear the man play in his own home. Along with established musicians like Elvis Costello, he'd invite younger acts like My Morning Jacket up to play. Once I met a pair of British musicians there from a group called The Magic Numbers. They were weaned on records by The Band and couldn't believe they were there.
For a while, Helm was healthy enough to begin traveling and playing out again. He resumed making records, and won himself a few Grammys. As the Rambles became a bona fide regional attraction, Helm became a kind of cultural ambassador for Woodstock and New York's Hudson Valley. He let neighborhood folks come to the Rambles for free, played countless benefits for local charities and fundraisers. Once a year, he'd stage a special Kid's Ramble at his house, where five bucks got you an afternoon of family-style music plus all the hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza and cupcakes you could eat.
I live in the Hudson Valley, and I've seen Helm — or simply Levon, as most people around here generally refer to him — perform many times, his smile impossibly wide, that signature black glove on his tireless left hand. Watching him, it was easy to believe his mighty groove and massive grin could burn off any disease. For a while, it seemed, it did.
A few days ago, I was speaking with the members of a young blues-rock band. They mentioned they had just been camping in New York's Catskill Mountains in between dates on a national tour, and I noted that they hadn't been far from Levon's place. They said they were big fans, and thought it would be amazing to play a Ramble some day. It's sad to think that can't happen now. But Levon's legacy remains alive in his music, which will continue teach, inspire and wow all comers.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
News today that the musician Levon Helm has died. He was a key figure in the '60s and '70s rock group called, simply, The Band. Helm orchestrated a return to the fundamentals of rock 'n' roll at a time when many artists had moved to the experimental fringes.
The 71-year-old drummer and vocalist died this afternoon at a New York hospital, of throat cancer. NPR's Felix Contreras has this remembrance.
FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: Levon Helm was born in a part of the country where bluegrass, gospel, country music and the blues all combined to create the DNA of rock 'n' roll. And you could hear all that in Levon Helm's voice.
(SOUNDBITE OF "THE WEIGHT")
LEVON HELM: (Singing) I pulled into Nazareth, was feeling 'bout half-past dead. I just needed someplace where I can lay my head. Hey, mister, can you tell me...
CONTRERAS: Helm told NPR in 2006 that it was the radio that brought all that music to his home in Turkey Scratch, Arkansas.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)
HELM: The closest big town, of course, for me was Memphis. So we had that Memphis radio, and we had KFFA in Helena, which had the King Biscuit Show. We had a great mix of music right there - good music and good food.
CONTRERAS: And that good eating undoubtedly fueled the informal jam sessions where folk songs were passed around like plates of food, as he explained to WHYY's FRESH AIR in 2007.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)
HELM: I remember one night, they had one at my uncle's house. I had a big grocery box, pasteboard box, and I beat that thing to death that night. I was a - I volunteered to play percussion.
CONTRERAS: He left Arkansas right out of high school to play drums with country and blues singer Ronnie Hawkins. They traveled to Canada, where they recruited a group of like-minded musicians that called themselves The Hawks.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
THE HAWKS: (Singing) When she says her last goodbye, oh, you're going to hang your head and cry. What'cha gonna do when your baby leaves you? What'cha gonna do? What'cha gonna do?
CONTRERAS: Eventually, Hawkins' backup musicians struck out on their own, bucking the 1960s trends of psychodelia in favor of a rootsier take on rock 'n' roll.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE NIGHT THEY DROVE OLD DIXIE DOWN")
HELM: (Singing) The night they drove old Dixie down, and the bells were ringing. The night they drove old Dixie down, and the people were singing. They went na, la-la-la-la na, la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la la...
WILL HERMES: It was a profound right turn, in a way, in popular music.
CONTRERAS: Will Hermes is the author of the recent book "Love Goes to Buildings On Fire," and a senior critic for Rolling Stone magazine. He says the musician's choice of the name The Band reflected their musical philosophy.
HERMES: The Band really dug into those roots of country music, the roots of blues, the roots of rockabilly. And Levon Helm was right at the crux of that.
CONTRERAS: After only eight years, The Band parted ways over personal and financial differences. Helm, and guitarist and songwriter Robbie Robertson, were at odds over royalties. The drummer pursued a solo career, wrote an autobiography, and acted in over 10 films. Then, in 1997, he was diagnosed with throat cancer. After 28 radiation treatments, the cancer seemed to be gone - but so was his voice.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)
HELM: I didn't die, thank God. And I started getting some of my voice back, and I finally got to the point where I could laugh and talk. Singing and playing, of course, you miss. But the laughing and talking, you just can't hardly live without.
HERMES: He really made a comeback to the point that he was touring and playing big venues.
CONTRERAS: Again, writer Will Hermes.
HERMES: And in some ways getting the individual recognition, apart from Bob Dylan, apart from The Band, that he didn't have earlier.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POOR OLD DIRT FARMER")
HELM: (Singing) Oh, the poor old dirt farmer, he's lost his corn. And now where's the money to pay off his loan?
CONTRERAS: Levon Helm's 2007 album "Dirt Farmer" won a Grammy for best traditional folk album. Two more Grammys followed, along with praise from both critics and fans for music that sounded a lot like the songs he heard as a youngster in Arkansas.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)
HELM: Music is such a powerful thing. And as people are living their lives, the songs that aid and comfort us all are - you know, they mean a lot to us when we live through those times. And I was only fortunate enough to be around and enjoying some of the music.
CONTRERAS: Just before Levon Helm died, he and former bandmate Robbie Robertson seemed to have patched up their differences. After spending an afternoon with Helm, Robertson wrote on his Facebook page: Levon is one of the most extraordinary, talented people I have ever known, and very much like an older brother to me. I am so grateful I got to see him one last time, and will miss him and love him forever.
Felix Contreras, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WIDE RIVER TO CROSS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.