The Best Of Levon Helm: Artists Weigh In

Written by May 26th, 2013 at 7:18 am

levon helm

Music icon Levon Helm would have turned 73 on May 26. The beloved drummer and vocalist for The Band died last April after a prolonged battle with throat cancer, prompting heartfelt tributes from musicians and fans across the globe. We asked artists to chime in on their favorite Levon Helm performance. Read our Top 20 Songs of The Band feature here.

Amy Ray of The Indigo Girls

“Whispering Pines.” To a heartbroken kid in the South, this song was a vehicle for tears. I could lay out on the pole vault mats on the high school field, surrounded by Southern Pines, and hum this song for hours, with it’s revolving, cascading, desperate melody. I didn’t even know why it made me feel so much.

Frankie Ballard

Well I’m sure everyone will say “Cripple Creek” and “The Weight”. . . I gotta go with “The Shape I’m In.” Levon Helm is the coolest dude I’ve never known! “60 days in the jailhouse for the crime of havin’ no dough, now here I am back out on the streets . . . for the crime of havin’ no where else to go!”

Sarah Jarosz

“Up On Cripple Creek” is one of the most grooving songs I’ve ever heard. They lock into that slow tempo and just drive it home all the way to the end. Levon Helm’s singing on this track is so uniquely expressive and soulful. I believe it’s truly some of the best music that exists.

Trapper Schoepp of Trapper Schoepp and the Shades

“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” has reached an anthemic status amongst my band and friend circle. During my sophomore year of college, it seems we would end every Friday night by putting that on the turntable. After a long night of drinking whiskey, we’d all join hands in an almost prayer like ritual to sing-along with Levon. While the song signifies the end of the Civil War, for us, it signified our night’s end. It was our last call before we were old enough to go out to the bars.

“Dixie” (as we’d call it) gave closure to the Friday nights of us 20-something Wisconsin boys, but more importantly, to a whole generation of Southerners. The sense of Americanism in that song, and most Band songs, is largely absent amongst young songwriters today and that’s a shame. It is of course ironic, though, that a band made up of mostly Canadians came to define a genre called Americana. I guess sometimes it takes an outsider looking in to truly paint a masterpiece.

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Dan Wheetman of Marley’s Ghost

There isn’t a tune that doesn’t belong in this line up but since this is a Levon tribute I have a couple of songs that I’d add as equal contenders. First off would be the Helm/Robertson co-written “Jemima Surrender” off the second album. They wrote it about trying to make time with a woman of color and the saucy, rolling lyric is held fast in that Band half-time feel that makes so many of their tunes live. Levon’s vocal coaxes, cajoles and pleads in a most insistent way while Danko’s barely audible asides keep the humor up while desperately trying to score. I love it.

Levon never lost sight of his roots, the people of the earth he sprang from, and the tune, “The Caves of Jericho” he wrote about the mining disaster off the Band’s first album without Robertson, is a moving paean to the common man and a wry comment on the structure of the labor force. “but his business boys, start ‘em up again.” Understated and heartbreaking with a vocal so honest it hurts without hitting hard.

And if I can just throw in one more it would be off Levon’s last solo album, Electric Dirt and the Campbell/Helm penned tune, “Growin’ Trade” about the plight of the small farmer who turns to another “crop” to keep his family fed and to hold onto his land. It stands up to any other Band tune in it’s craftsmanship and it’s naked musicality. Levon tells the tale straight forwardly and doesn’t pull punches or become maudlin or self-pitying, this is how it is and I’ll stand by it. Seems to me, it reflects the way he lived and the music he played, always built on honesty.

Levon’s passing hit me pretty hard. There aren’t many “heroes” I feel I’d like to meet, but Levon was on the top of my list and when I found out our band had a chance to play the Ramble, set for later this fall, I was ecstatic…and when he died…well, broke my heart on so many levels. I know I’m just one of thousands who will miss him and all I can say is, “Thanks, Levon…”

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Peter Holsapple of The dB’s

At fourteen, I bought Stage Fright when it came out and spent a year absorbing its glory.I have been fortunate enough to get to play “The Rumor” in two different bands in two non-connected decades; The first time was with Chris Stamey in a high school combo circa 1971 which never played out; that didn’t ever stop us from trying to find beautiful tunes to play. The lyric and the gorgeous riff from the Band song filled the criteria perfectly. Later, in New Orleans, I got to play it throughout the 1990s in a string band, replete with fiddles and mandolins. Yet again, adapted into that format, the song stood out in our set list (and this band played it often). Talk about staying power…

There is something about “The Rumor” which still has me singing it to myself, many years after first hearing and learning it. I’m not sure if it’s the veracity of the words or the melody’s lilt that keeps it fresh for me, but I’m grateful for how big and constant a part of my life’s songbook it has always been. I will miss Levon Helm and the American education he brought us all through his music. I am grateful that I lived in a time when he did too.

Harry Shearer

My favorite, by a country mile: “Life is a Carnival.” The Band connects with some other American roots, namely, New Orleans, with the help of a horn section arranged by none other than Allen Toussaint. As for the message: anyone who has really immersed himself in a real New Orleans Mardi Gras day — as opposed to the Bud Light version on Bourbon St. — can only wish the title were true. Carnival, in fact, is much better than life.

Kelley Mickwee of The Trishas

“When I first watched/heard “The Weight,” recorded as part of The Last Waltz, it was the first time a performance of a song had ever brought me to tears. The way Levon sings it from his toes all the way to the top of his head, then throw in Mavis and Pop and the Staples, and you have a masterpiece.

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Next: No False Bones: The Legacy Of Levon Helm

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