The Band was the original Americana outfit, blending country, folk, blues, and first-generation rock and roll, but without singer/drummer Levon Helm they would have lacked a crucial element – an American. Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, and Richard Manuel were Canadians with a deep love of the sounds of the American South, but Arkansan Helm was the genuine article — bluegrass, R&B, and rockabilly were in his bones, not to mention his voice, his drumming and often, his mandolin playing. The rest of the Band might have sounded like they grew up in a town called Turkey Scratch, but Helm actually did.
It was in the early ‘60s that Helm first met his future Band mates, when they were all slogging it out in roadhouses around the U.S. and Canada as rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins’ back-up band, the Hawks. After parting ways with Hawkins and striking out on their own, the Hawks were tapped by Bob Dylan to help him bring his new electrified, folk-rock sound to the stage in 1965, but some fans were unready for their hero’s evolution and responded harshly. Fed up, Helm quit for a while, heading off to work on an oil rig, though he returned to the fold in time to play on Dylan’s 1967 recordings The Basement Tapes.
The Band, as they soon became known, had relocated to the Woodstock area to work with Dylan, and it was there, in a house dubbed Big Pink, that they began concocting the organic-but-artful roots-rock sound of their 1968 debut album, Music From Big Pink. On the strength of songs like the Helm-sung classic “The Weight,” the Band became recognized as a major force on the ‘60s rock scene. They were at the vanguard of a seismic shift away from psychedelic frippery towards a simpler, more down-home sound. Helm-fronted tracks including “Rag Mama Rag,” “Up On Cripple Creek,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and “When I Paint My Masterpiece” gave an extra layer of grit and Southern authenticity to the group’s Americana rock.
The Band went out with a bang, with a 1976 farewell concert that included a raft of top-shelf guest stars, including Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters and Dylan, and was captured on film by Martin Scorsese as The Last Waltz. With 1977’s Levon Helm & The RCO All-Stars, Helm embarked on a rewarding solo career, sticking close to the rootsy feel of the Band’s best work. In 1980, he started a successful sideline in acting with a role in Loretta Lynn biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter. From the mid-‘80s to the late ‘90s, Helm shifted his focus to the reunited Band (sans Robertson), though the group would tragically lose two members along the way — Manuel hung himself in 1986, while Danko died in ’99.
The 2000s were a difficult but ultimately triumphant time for Helm. Bouncing back from throat cancer treatments that affected his voice, he eventually regained much of his vocal power, and established the tradition of the Midnight Ramble, an ongoing series of all-night blowouts at his Woodstock HQ. An astonishing array of artists have guested at the Rambles, including some of Helm’s own heroes (Allen Toussaint, Hubert Sumlin, Pinetop Perkins), his peers (Hot Tuna, David Bromberg, Kris Kristofferson), and a younger generation of disciples. The latter camp includes the likes of My Morning Jacket, Justin Townes Earle, Norah Jones, Conor Oberst, and Gillian Welch, whose music would not have sounded the same without Helm as a key influence. Another Levon acolyte and recent Rambler, blues artist Chris Bergson told Hive: “I’ve never experienced anything else quite like playing music at the Rambles. There’s something a little bit sacred about playing music in the barn. My band opened the Ramble last October, when the studio had lost power due to the bizarre snowstorm, and both bands played acoustically all night by candlelight. It was magical and it just made everyone lean in and listen all that much more.”
Between 2007 and 2011, the revitalized Helm released three Grammy-winning solo albums, but in April 0f 2012, fans were shocked by a statement on Helm’s website reading, “Levon is in the final stages of his battle with cancer.” When Levon passed away on April 19 at the age of 71, rock and roll lost a man who gave voice to America’s joys and sorrows so successfully because he lived them.