Man of the earth, soul for the ages

Photo of Levon Helm at a Ramble by Dion Ogust.

“It was late on an autumn afternoon, the maples and oaks were glowing orange and red, and I couldn’t take my eyes off Overlook Mountain and the rolling terrain,” Levon Helm wrote in his 1993 autobiography, of the moment in 1967 when he first arrived here. “From that first day, the Catskills reminded me of the Ozarks and the Arkansas hill country. I had a shock of recognition. Going to Woodstock felt like going home.”

And it felt natural and right having you here, too, Levon. It’s a little late to tell you that, now, but Woodstock did make its feelings known about you when you were given the key to the town on Levon Helm Day, or when we would come to the Rambles or flock to the Village Green or the Gill Farm when you performed there. The love was mutual.

Levon Helm, drum legend, three-time Grammy winner whose voice more than any other describes what is now a full fledged musical genre called “Americana,” died April 19 of the cancer that nearly got him more than a decade ago. He was 71. But if you put the sticks in his hands, he could still probably lay down a backbeat and kick the hell out of his 12-piece band. His family, friends and fans made the pilgrimage to Woodstock for his wake on Thursday, April 26, held at his studio.

Levon backed up Dylan, and that’s how he found Woodstock; played with The Band, which had an incredible heyday in the late 1960s and early 70s, and then experienced the dregs at the bottom of the music business, watched two of his beloved colleagues, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko, perish, and the ravages of the business almost got him, too.

His reemergence in the last decade was nothing less than miraculous, not only for him and the top-flight musicians who got to play with him, but for those who worked his Rambles, for the technicians, sound people, security, those who were smiling while working the tables and the parking lot. All knew they were a part of something magical.

He went out on top, no doubt about it. Three Grammy awards for three albums put out during the last five years; an extraordinary band, led by multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell and featuring his daughter Amy Helm, Teresa Williams, keyboardist Brian Mitchell, bassist Byron Isaacs, the blazing horn section with Howard Johnson, Erik Lawrence and Jay Collins, guitarist Jim Weider and Randy Ciarlante.

The Rambles, which had started out as rent parties back in 2005 to help the musician pay the mortgage on his studio/home, and to which he invited friends to play and jam, went on to become one of the most coveted tickets in all of show business, despite a $150 price tag, and attracted some of the finest players of the day, including Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Phil Lesh, Elvis Costello, Allen Toussaint, Kris Kristofferson, Hubert Sumlin, Charlie Louvin, Mumford and Sons, Hot Tuna, Robbie Dupree, Cindy Cashdollar…and any musician who got to pick up an instrument and play on one of the shows will be forever telling the story.

The Levon Helm Band was in demand and could fill the seats in any venue and put on a show to rival any in rock n’ roll in recent years.

And it was great for Woodstock, too. You could be out somewhere hearing music on a Thursday night and someone there would tell you that he and his wife were there from Vancouver for the Ramble Saturday night. And they were staying somewhere in town for a couple of days, eating in the restaurants, enjoying Woodstock. You’d meet many with similar stories.

Levon put Woodstock back on the map, in a big way. People wouldn’t ask anymore about the festival. It was, where’s Levon’s? Have you been to a Ramble?

“Every now and then I feel like my voice is as good as it’s ever been,” Levon said, in a 2008 interview with our sister paper Woodstock Times. “Every now and then it’ll go south on me, but most of the time it serves a purpose and I’m happy about that.”

It was suggested to him that maybe it was better than ever, even with its limitations.

“I wish it was that way,” he said. “I know that with Ray Charles and Ralph Stanley and B.B. King, singers I admire, they seem to get better every time I hear them.”

After the Band years, Levon built his RCO studio and brought in some all-stars.

“Fred Carter [one of his earliest influences] came up to play with us in Woodstock, [Memphis bassist] Duck Dunn came up…Howard Johnson, Lou Marini, Alan Rubin, the Saturday Night Live horn guys. And Butterfield was playing in the days. I remember…he brought a lot of the great players to town for the first time, [saxophonist] Gene Dinwiddie, [guitarist] Buzzy Feiten, those guys came in and made the town a more musical place. What a great band he had…

“We’re trying the same kind of thing…music really needs a place to play. We’ve got our best equipment here and can sound better here than anywhere…”

At the darkest time, circa late 1990s, struggling to recover from the throat cancer, no more movie roles (he’d been in The Right Stuff, Coal Miner’s Daughter and a few others) he would bring his band, the Barnburners, with daughter Amy doing the singing because he couldn’t, to one of the late incarnations of Joyous Lake on Wednesday nights, playing to almost no one. The music world had discovered hip hop and perennial pop divas sold lots of CDs, and it seemed no one wanted a good tough R&B rock n’ roll band, and no one remembered Levon Helm.

At its most desperate, a dedicated cadre of friends, including Barbara O’Brien who began as a volunteer and progressed to manage the Levon Helm Band, hit on the rent party idea and called it the Midnight Ramble after shows he remembered from his Arkansas childhood.

And it gave him a near decade of renaissance, a climb back to the top.

He never took it for granted.

“I do enjoy it more. We’re just trying to make music now,” he said in that 2008 interview. “Having it taken away from me has made it more so. This many years later, that’s the most peaceful time in my day, when I’m playing. There’s nothing to worry about, I don’t owe anybody anything, just play the songs and try to make them good. As musicians, we’re just not ourselves unless we’re doing that. The way we feel is just not as good. After the show’s over the other things can come back.”

Well, the ‘other things’ aren’t coming back for him. But the music won’t stop. It will live on.

Levon is survived by his wife Sandy; daughter Amy, her husband Jay Collins and their two sons; a world of musicians he inspired, millions of fans, and a small town he called home, that will never forget him. ++





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