No False Bones: The Legacy of Levon Helm
With that scrabbling, cigarette-stained tenor, he could keenly convey the twangy humor of “a drunkard’s dream” or the proud defiance, yet forlorn loss of “my brother before me, who took a rebel stand.” His tawny tone could blend in harmony so easily, yet remain so distinguishable – and so perfectly controlled despite the fact that he simultaneously maintained taut, funky drum rhythms. If he ached constantly, no chiropractor would be surprised; Helm kept his right shoulder scrunched nearly to his ear, dropping his left as he hunched his lanky frame over his kit, head twisted to one side while he sang.
Fiddler/vocalist Mat Davidson of Spirit Family Reunion, which played the last two rambles before Helm’s passing, says, “My impression of Levon is that he was made completely out of music. That struck me when I first saw him two years ago at [the] Newport [Folk Festival]. Every musician in the place was riveted. He really was a legend; it was wonderful to see that was true … Meeting and playing with him was one of the most affirming things in my life. One of my favorite memories is looking over at our drummer, Pete [Pezzimenti], sitting next to him – we had two drums set up – and both guys are in rapture. It was really a sight to see.”
Davidson says if he had to present someone with just one album “that demonstrates everything I love about music,” it would be The Band. Released in 1969, it’s still considered their masterpiece.
Andy Falco of the Infamous Stringdusters, another acolyte, notes, “His style of telling the story was absolutely perfect. He really made you believe that you were hearing these stories from a person who saw all that stuff.”
Oddly enough, guitarist Robertson, who so vividly evoked that sense of America with his storyteller’s imagination, claimed to have no idea his songs fell under a now-specific genre (much less a Grammy category). But that’s minor compared to what some consider the irony of calling the Band the great American band when Helm was technically the only American in it. That is, if one defines America only as the United States. If one includes the whole continent, then Canadians Robertson, Hudson, late bassist/vocalist Rick Danko and late keyboardist/vocalist Richard Manuel were every bit as American as Helm. The only difference was that their pronunciation lacked the twang he never lost even though he moved “up North,” first to Ontario with fellow Razorback Ronnie Hawkins, then to Woodstock, New York. His Band mates also lacked the cultural imprint of growing up the son of a cotton farmer in a vanquished Confederate state. But you’d never know it by listening to them.
Santelli, who led trips through Helm’s early musical stomping grounds as vice president of education for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame & Museum, points out, “They were American in musical spirit, maybe more than some American bands. Because they understood and took the time to not only learn it, but they experienced it firsthand as kids, when they were still very impressionable, going out with the Hawks.”
Robertson, who was 16 when he joined Helm in Ronnie Hawkins & the Hawks, vividly remembers traveling to Helm’s precious home soil.
“It was right in the heart of a part of America that a tremendous amount of music came out of, like some phenomenon of a 100-mile radius around Memphis and over to where Levon lived [outside of Helena, Arkansas], and Mississippi. To me,” he says, “going there was like going to the source. Because I was at such a vulnerable age then, it made a really big impact on me. Just that I had the honor joining up with this group and then even going to this place, which was close to a religious experience – even being able to put my feet on the ground there, because I was from Canada, right? So it was like, ‘Woah, this is where this music grows in the ground, and [flows from] the Mississippi river. My goodness.’ It very much affected my songwriting and, because I knew Levon’s musicality so well, I wanted to write songs that I thought he could sing better than anybody in the world.
“While I was there, I was just gathering images and names, and ideas and rhythms, and I was storing all of these things – which I didn’t realize I was doing – but I was storing them all in an attic in my mind somewhere. And when it was time to sit down and write songs, when I reached into the attic to see what I was gonna write about, that’s what was there. I just felt a strong passion toward the discovery of going there, and it opened my eyes, and all my senses were overwhelmed by the feeling of that place. When I sat down to write songs, that’s all I could think of at the time.”
When Helm summoned Campbell to Woodstock eight years ago to “make some music,” he helped the drummer conduct his now famed Midnight Rambles and pull off the rare feat of making three Grammy-winning albums in a row – comeback albums, no less. The second, Electric Dirt, took the inaugural Best Americana Album Grammy in 2010; Helm won the same award this year for Ramble At The Ryman, staged in 2008 by the Americana Music Association, which also gave Helm its 2008 Artist of the Year award. (“Even a blind chicken gets a piece of corn once in a while,” he cracked upon accepting.) In 2003, the AMA presented Helm with its second Lifetime Achievement Award for performance.
It became an incredible final chapter to a career seemingly vanquished by the double whammy of voice-stealing cancer and Danko’s 1999 death, which ended the post-Robertson Band era begun in 1983.
But the same year Helm started hosting his rambles, named after the traveling medicine shows of his youth, his voice started returning. And as they grew in popularity, both Helm’s contemporaries and young up-and-comers who’d done their homework clamored to play – or simply were invited.
Austin blues singer and guitarist Carolyn Wonderland wound up at her first Ramble because a tribute to Levon on which Helm and Kris Kristofferson, among others, were also billed, somehow fell through.
“There were all these bands that had flown in, and he decided that instead of having it not happen he would throw a ramble at his house,” she recalls. She wound up taking an expensive taxi ride all the way from New York to Woodstock, but adds, “It was so worth it; it was the best ever … It was a beautiful thing to have someone who you respect so much turn out to be so gracious and kind. That guy was amazing.”
Wonderland, who recorded part of her last album, Peace Meal, at Helm’s studio, has already donated to the “Keep It Goin’” campaign to fulfill Helm’s wish for the rambles and studio to continue. Just days after the campaign was announced, donors had given more than $420,000, snapping up all available “picks” on a wall mural to feature inscribed picks flowing from a mandolin.