The music world has been a little lonelier than usual for the last few days because Levon Helm passed away April 19 at the age of 71. Best known as the drummer and sometimes lead singer of the legendary rock group, The Band; he continued to produce relevant and commercially successful music to the end of his life. His albums, Dirt Farmer (2007), Electric Dirt (2009), and Ramble At The Ryman (2011) all won Grammy Awards.
He traveled a lot of musical miles since being raised in rural Arkansas. His first break came when he joined Ronnie Hawkins backing band during 1959, which brought him into contact with future Band mates Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson. They toured with Bob Dylan, 1965-1966, and joined him in the studio during 1967, which ultimately became The Basement Tapes album, released in 1975.
After leaving Dylan, The Band released a series of albums that remain some of the best in rock history. Music From Big Pink, The Band, Stage Fright, and Cahoots formed a series of albums, whose quality has rarely been duplicated.
I saw The Band perform live sometime during the early 1970s. I remember first focusing on Robertson as the visible front man, then the bear-like presence of Hudson, but finally my attention settled on Levon Helm. Not only did his drumming provide the foundation for the band’s sound, but every once in a while his weary and gravelly voice would just mesmerize you with its emotion and depth. His weary vocal on “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” the gravelly rock vocal of “Up On Cripple Creek,” and the jubilation of “The Weight” have reverberated down through the years.
He also remained deeply committed to The Band. The group dissolved in 1976 but Helm was instrumental in resurrecting the group during 1983 minus Robertson. He kept it going through Manuel’s suicide in 1986, but it finally ended with Danko’s death in 1999. Robbie Robertson has acquired 4/5 of the group’s ownership, the only hold-out being Helm who was still in possession of his 20% when he passed away.
Helm continued to record and tour but his main focus gradually became his Midnight Rambles, which were held in his Woodstock, New York barn, beginning in the year 2000. Dozens and probably hundreds of musicians, both well-known and not so much, attended his rambles down through the years. Artists such as Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Dr. John, Kris Kristofferson, Norah Jones, Hot Tuna, Phil Lesh, and old bandmate Garth Hudson among others travelled to his barn for an evening of music.
The rambles near the end of his life helped define and bring closure to his life of music. He may not have been a superstar in the traditional sense of the word, but his music, both with The Band and solo, helped to define their eras and spoke about the fabric of America. Levon Helm is another in a generation of musicians who are now passing away. His voice is the latest to be silenced and the world of music is poorer for it.