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Levon Helm: 1940-2012


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By C. Michael Bailey

The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life.

—William Faulkner

It might be a hard sell to claim that Levon Helm was the voice of The Band, considering he was part of a trio of the most distinctive voices in rock music during what some call its “Golden Age.” Along with Richard Manuel and Rick Danko, Helm gave vivid and gritty life to the sepia-toned lyrics of Americana that poured from the genius of Robbie Robertson. Most powerful in The Band’s repertoire were those songs where all three sing: “Chest Fever,” “Get Up Jake,” and “The Weight.”

But each singer also had his spotlight pieces: For Manuel, they included the concert staple “Georgia on My Mind,” “Tears of Rage,” and “I Shall Be Released.” The Rick Danko highlights were “Unfaithful Servant,” “Stage Fright,” and “This Wheel’s on Fire.” But, it was Levon Helm’s showpieces that were, perhaps, the most iconic of all: “Rag Mama Rag,” “Up on Cripple Creek” and the magisterial “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”

The only non-Canadian member of The Band, Mark Lavon Helm was was born in the dusty flat hamlet of Turkey Scratch, North of Marvell and West of Helena in the Arkansas Delta. He began in music early and by proximity and period personally knew many of the most important black blues singers, including Sonny Boy Williamson II (Alec Miller), Robert Lockwood Jr. and Johnny Shines as well as Elvis Presley, Conway Twitty, and Bo Diddley who toured the Delta area in the ‘50s and ‘60s. He was steeped in the American Music of the South. After high school, Helm joined fellow Arkansan Ronnie Hawkins’ band The Hawks, already comprised of the Canadian contingency Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko, and Richard Manuel.

The Hawks would eventually morph into The Band, acting as Bob Dylan’s touring group in the late 1960s and early 1970s, while concurrently releasing the critically important Music From Big Pink (Capitol, 1968), The Band (Capitol, 1969), and Stage Fright (Capitol, 1970). The group would also take part in producing three of the finest live recordings in rock: Rock of Ages (Capitol, 1972), with Bob Dylan on Before the Flood (Asylum, 1974), and their all-star farewell The Last Waltz (United Artists, 1978).

After The Band’s dissolution, Helm continued to record and tour, under a reformed Band banner and as his own group. Throat cancer interrupted him in the late 1990s. His convalescence was hard, long, and never fully achieved, but his dogged work ethic resulted in the releases of the uniformly excellent Dirt Farmer (Vanguard, 2007), Electric Dirt (Dirt Farmer Music, 2009) and Ramble at the Ryman (Vanguard, 2011), all of which won Grammy Awards.

The years have been less than kind to this trio Helm, Manuel, and Danko, Richard Manuel passed away in 1986 at age 42. Rick Danko followed in 1999 at 56. Now the last or this triumvirate, Levon Helm, leaves at age 71, working almost to the end. No, Levon Helm might not have been the voice of The Band, but he was The Band’s authentic Virgil Caine, their veracious Southern voice. As a singer, Helm was a first among brilliant equals, a Son of Arkansas and a son of the South, and an irreplaceable musical and human presence. All honor Levon Helm.

Catch a cannon ball now, t'take me down the line My bag is sinkin' low and I do believe it's time. To get back to Miss Fanny, you know she's the only one. Who sent me here with her regards for everyone.

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