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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,632

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This is the grave of Levon Helm.

Here lies one of the all-time greats, one of my favorite musicians.

Born in 1940 in Elaine, Arkansas (a town that 20 years earlier had seen a horrible massacre of sharecroppers trying to organize), Mark Helm (though he was known as Lavon from the time he was a kid) grew up in the impossibly named settlement of Turkey Scratch. His parents were cotton farmers and they were musical people. When people came through the area, they’d bring the family to see them. That included Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys in 1946, which means little Levon saw them with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. That’s pretty cool. By the time he was 8, Levon was playing guitar and drums. As a kid, he heard the blues and he heard the Grand Ole Opry and he saw the last days of the traveling minstrel shows with their blackface entertainment but also good music. All of this would steep in the brain and heart of this young musician and with it, he would go far to change musical history.

Levon could play a bunch of stuff, but his real love was the drums. He claimed his biggest inspiration on the kit was Peck Curtis, who was the drummer for Sonny Boy Williamson II, who he would go and see a lot. Helm started playing with Robert Lockwood, the underrated blues guitarist who did record a bunch for Chess, but is less famous today. It’s interesting to me how you could have interracial bands at this time in the South. I guess if a white boy wanted to play the blues, he would be seen by other whites as not respectable, but as they say, in the South, a Black person can be close but not big, whereas in the North, they can be big but not close.

Helm developed a local reputation in Arkansas as a good drummer. Ronnie Hawkins asked him to join his band, the Hawks, in 1957. Levon was only 17 years old. Hawkins never did have that much success in the U.S., but he was very popular in Canada, as was rockabilly generally. His mother wouldn’t let him join the band until he graduated from high school, but in 1958, he did join the band and moved to Toronto. It was around this time that Lavon Helm became Levon. According to Helm, the Canadians just couldn’t pronounce Lavon right and they said it “Levon” so he just ran with it.

Helm started playing with another member of Hawkins’ band, the bassist Rick Danko. They did some backing work on jazz albums in the early 60s recorded in Toronto. They were both very good musicians and while not exactly New York jazz good, good enough for this. Hawkins got a bunch of other young Canadians to join him as well–a guitarist named Robbie Robertson, a pianist named Richard Manuel, and an organist named Garth Hudson. They played show after show after show, just honing those skills. In 1963, they all collectively moved on from Hawkins and formed Levon and the Hawks and toured constantly, though not to much commercial success.

But then Bob Dylan came calling. He heard them and thought they would be perfect as his backing band for his switch to electric music. He was sure right about that. Of course, audiences hated Dylan going electric, which was stupid, but it was the mid-60s and folkies had a weird authenticity fetish. The hate was so strong that Helm left the band. He just couldn’t take the booing. He was away for two whole years, from mid-65 to mid-67. He hung out in the South mostly, played some with Bobby Keys, worked on oil rigs, and started dabbling in LSD.

By 1967, the band was hanging out with Dylan in his house outside of Woodstock. Helm came back toward the end of their recordings. Dylan decided to help them put out an album. They needed a name and that of course just became The Band. Music from Big Pink is one of the greatest albums ever released. Helm only came back to record one song–“The Weight,” which became an all-time classic, recorded by Mavis Staples, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, and so many others in the coming years. Incidentally. I found the big pink house which is in a lovely location up against where the Catskills drop sharply to the Hudson River and which you can rent on housing vacation sites.

Helm didn’t really write songs, but his influence was all over The Band’s second, self-titled, album. Not only did he sing the lead on “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Up on Cripple Creek,” the two most famous songs on the recording, but the album was much more a southern album than Big Pink. Helm’s stories deeply influenced these Canadians and for the rest of the band’s lifespan, their music would take on deep southern tones.

Unfortunately, the quality of The Band’s albums declined quickly. Stage Fright is a good album, but not a great one. Then it’s pretty bad. Northern Lights Southern Cross is a fine album. The rest are mostly not. A couple good songs here and there. It’s weird to me–this was a veteran band. They had been on the road forever. They weren’t a bunch of 20 year old kids. But boy did the drugs of the 60s zonk their brains, especially Levon, Danko, and Manuel. All of them got involved in heroin, plus just about everything else. Levon was a bit less crazy than the other two, but it was bad enough. All the songwriting was dumped onto Robbie and he only had so many good songs, or maybe Levon only had so many good stories. It seems that fame just blew their minds and despite being veterans of music, they couldn’t really handle it.

Now, I have no patience for Levon’s claims later in life that Robbie Robertson dominated the band and was a media hog. Just for evidence, all one has to do is watch The Last Waltz to see that while Robertson might have the most spoken lines, Helm and Danko are all over that. It’s clear enough that Garth Hudson wanted nothing to do with the camera and Manuel was already a complete disaster downing Grand Marnier by the gallon and needed to be marginalized in the film. But it’s not a Robbie fest!

Well, whatever, bitterness is a thing. Not all bands can be the Allman Brothers and be buried in the same plot.

After the breakup, Helm, who was at least more together than Danko or Manuel, went into acting. He was great in Coal Miner’s Daughter and The Right Stuff, but then that declined too. I guess with that voice, you could only realistically be cast in a certain kind of role. He recorded a few things, but of course since he never wrote anything, there wasn’t much to do. The Band minus Robbie got back together, but this was not a good thing. Playing the nostalgia circuit did nothing good for any of them except bring in some money. Then Manuel killed himself. Ringo gave him and Danko a break and put them in his All-Star Band.

In 1998, a lifetime of smoking gave Helm throat cancer. He survived, recovered most of his voice, and started to take his career a bit more seriously again. He started recording again, working with his daughter Amy (an excellent musician with several good albums). He also opened his home in Woodstock to the public for shows. He transformed his barn into a concert venue and hosted his Midnight Ramble, where big-time musicians would come, hang out with Levon, and perform in a super intimate venue. Levon’s wife still lives there today and now there is a regular set of shows in the barn. I went to see Drive-By Truckers there and it’s quite a little space. My only bummer about that show is that Walton Goggins was there too, who is buddies with the band, and I didn’t see him, which should be almost impossible given that it holds like 200 people tops, but then I wasn’t looking around at other people much either.

Helm really had a great end to his career as a respected senior musician who was filled with love for the music. He recorded a couple of albums from his Ramble and there was a documentary and he and Robertson mostly repaired their relationship. In the end, the throat cancer came back and it finally took him in 2012. He was 71 years old.

Levon Helm is buried in Woodstock Cemetery, Woodstock, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other people associated with The Band, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Richard Manuel is in Stratford, Ontario and Allen Toussaint, who worked with The Band on Cahoots, among other projects, is in New Orleans. In fact, I spent a lot of time trying to find Toussaint’s grave on my last trip to New Orleans and failed, which was frustrating, so I am going to have to recalibrate and work this out next time. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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