Monday, April 23, 2012

Levon Helm, 1940-2012

I pulled in to Nazareth, was feeling ‘bout half past dead
I just need some place where I can lay my head
“Hey mister, can you tell me where a man might find a bed?’’
He just grinned and shook my hand, “No’’ was all he said
Take a load off, Fanny
Take a load for free
Take a load off, Fanny
And you put the load right on me
—The Weight, 1968

Levon Helm, the drummer for The Band who passed away Thursday at the age of 71, helped open Alltel Arena in 1999 with Ronnie Hawkins, his longtime mentor, and a fellow Band member, the organist Garth Hudson.

The blues harmonica virtuoso James Cotton was also at the inaugural concert. Helm, with his propulsive drumming and downhome singing, was having a good time and appeared to be in charge, but in a good-natured way.

Like most singers from the Arkansas Delta — Levon was born in 1940 in Elaine in Phillips County — he was unassuming and a natural entertainer. He had a thin, sharecropper’s face—his father grew cotton in Turkey Scratch in Phillips County, where another blues legend, Robert Junior Lockwood, was born 25 years earlier.

Helm had been performing since the Eisenhower-Faubus years, when he was a teenager, not only backing Hawkins, but later Bob Dylan. Helm often came home and in the mid-1960s performed with the harmonica legend Sonny Boy Williamson around Helena before Williamson died in a boarding house there.

Sometime back in the 1960s, Levon even put on a show at his old high school in Helena, where he sang “Up on Cripple Creek” to the delight of youngsters.

For many years, he lived unostentatiously in upstate New York, performing almost to the end. The Band had broken up decades ago — he was the only American in the group, the others were Canadian — so it was mostly because of Levon that they evoked 19th Century America with “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,”  “King Harvest Has Surely Come,” “The Weight,” “Ophelia” and so much more. Their sound  influenced generations of musicians from Credence Clearwater Revival to Eric Clapton.

This weekend, watch The Band’s “Last Waltz” farewell concert or listen to their greatest hits CD. Levon Helm will take you back to the Delta and to another time. Rest in peace, Levon, a true son of the South.