Levon Helm, the musician and, latterly, actor, best known as the drummer of The Band, has died of cancer in New York. He was 71. Helm was the only American in a band of Canadians obsessed with the mythology of the American South. He was born and raised in Marvell, Arkansas, a small town in the Mississipi delta.
Helm grew up around musicians (his father, a sharecropper, was a weekend guitarist) and in high school, he formed his first band, the Jungle Bush Beaters. As a teenager he entered the orbit of the R&B artist Ronnie Hawkins (himself Arkansas-born, though he made his name playing the club circuit north of the border in Ontario). Helm joined Hawkins’s backing band, The Hawks, in 1958. It was here that he met the musicians with whom he’d eventually form The Band: Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and Rick Danko.
The Hawks split from Hawkins in the early Sixties and toured for a while as “Levon and the Hawks”. Hawkins recognised that his talented young charges “wanted to play heavier music than that barroom stuff”. Things got even heavier when Helm and Robertson were recruited by Bob Dylan to play some live shows after his “electric” heresy at the Newport Festival in July 1965. Dylan eventually recruited the other three Hawks and the outfit set out on tour. They made a noise of a kind that had not been heard before. The writer Greil Marcus called them, “without exception or qualifications” the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band he’d ever seen. “If you weren’t there,” he wrote, “it will be difficult to convey the visual power of their performance”, or the “stately, extravagant, and visionary” sound they created.
Marcus’s view wasn’t widely held, however, and Helm, in particular, soon tired of the ritual execration of folk purists that the Dylan and his band had to endure each night. Helm quit the Hawks in November 1965, saying: “For the first time, I couldn’t stick to my policy, which was to whistle while I worked.” The drummer was reunited with the group now known as The Band in October 1967, by which time they were holed up in a house in Woodstock in upstate New York, where they’d been exploring the traditional musics of their adopted home – country, bluegrass and the blues.
Their first album Music from Big Pink was released in 1968, to a rapturous critical reception. Helm’s sinuous drumming was the cynosure of The Band’s sound. Ronnie Hawkins, quoted in Barney Hoskyns’s wonderful book Across the Great Divide: The Band and America, put it very well: “When Robbie brought me the tape I said, Goddamn, that’s country as hell, but it’s funky country, I like it . . . Robbie got most of the credit but Levon was the funk in the music.”
He was also its soul, a kind of guiding star for Robertson’s journey into the American mythos. Nowhere was this better demonstrated than in “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, on The Band’s eponymous second album, which was also their masterpiece. In this song Helm is Virgil Caine, a Confederate survivor of an attack by Union cavalry during the American Civil War. Greil Marcus wrote: “The performance leaves behind a feeling that for all our old oppositions, every American still shares this event … The song is not so much about the Civil War as it is about the way each American carried a version of that event within himself.”
In the video below, The Band performs “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, with Helm singing and playing drums, at their valedictory concert in November 1976, captured on film by Martin Scorsese in The Last Waltz.