The other day I read a tweet from Jason Isbell that read “I don’t know what to say.” that offered had a link to levonhelm.com. When I followed that link the official site read that “Levon was in the final stages of his battle with cancer.” Today at at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City the music legend left this last and final stage.
Helm was a key member of a band brimming with talent. Once backing rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins under the moniker “The Hawks,” and then backing Dylan as he shook the folk culture by bringing it into the electric age. The negative reaction of this event shook Helm to the extent that he returned to his birth state, Arkansas, to work on off-shore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico for two years until he was asked to rejoin the band.
Though primarily known for his tight drumming style and distinctive Southern growling vocal style Helm was an accomplished on mandolin, guitar, bass, harmonica and banjo. This wealth of talent allowed him to endure long after the demise of The Band.
As the soul American in the otherwise Canadian The Band’; Helm’s lent Sothern authenticity to some of their best known songs and the sound of elongated drawl shaped the words into authenticity. His solo career built on that foundation and he used his Woodstock NY barn for his Rambles, to experiment in open community jams that helped shape the sound and and to celebrate the heritage of music and shape the style we now know as Americana. Fittingly, Helm won two of the three Americana Album of the Year Grammys that have been handed out since the categories existence (Electric Dirt in 2010 and Ramble at the Ryman in 2011.) There is no argument that Helm is a founding father of the genre.
When news of Helm’s death started fanning across the web artists began to use twitter to pay their respects and reminisce. Rodney Crowell (@RodneyJCrowell) tweeted “Rest in Peace, Brother Levon.” Loretta Lynn (@The_LorettaLynn) tweeted (by way of her Facebook page) “Levon Helm will Always hold a special place in my heart. He was as great of an actor as a musician .. For me watching him play the role of my daddy in Coal miners daughter is a memory I will alway(s) treasure”
Helm is best known role was playing the aforementioned stern but loving father, Ted Webb, to Sissy Spacek’s Loretta. But he also had memorable parts in a number of other films including the excellent Tommy Lee Jones’ directed and starred in film “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.”
As musicians and fans tweeted the news “RIP Levon Helm” , “The Last Waltz” and “TheBand” were all listed as trending topics on the main page. Helm’s official Facebook page currently has over 6000 comments on the news of his death. It’s heartening to see a man so steeped in tradition being celebrated by fans taking solace in these online communities.
I believe it’s not a day of sadness bit of a celebration of a great life well lived. I was fortunate to see Helm perform live when he brought the Ramble on a rare road trip to San Francisco in August 2010. I’ll leave you with a video from that extraordinary performance.