Levon Helm is one of those rare people who exudes music and good cheer from every fiber of his being. He is best known as the drummer for The Band, where he also shared vocal duties with Richard Manuel and Rick Danko. Like the others in the group, he is a multi-instrumentalist and often played mandolin on their records and on stage. Some folks might know him from his more recent solo work, the Grammy winning Dirt Farmer album and his latest, Electric Dirt. Still, others might know his face from movies such as The Right Stuff and A Coal Miner’s Daughter.
Born in Arkansas in 1940, Helm learned music as a child and started playing in competitions and gatherings with his sister before they were teens. He learned a lot from watching the traveling musicians who came through town in revivals and tent shows as he explains in The Last Waltz (a movie he hated … sorry, Levon).
Like many musicians in the 1960s, Helm fell into drugs, struggling with heroin addiction. Unlike many of them, he decided to fully unplug himself from the music business for a while by taking a job on an oil rig when things got to be too much. He certainly saw his share of sadness: when Richard Manuel committed suicide by hanging himself in a Florida motel room, it was Levon who cut him down. A few years later, his friend, band member, and neighbor Rick Danko died. Helm battled throat cancer and lost his voice for a number of years, but gained it back in the mid 2000s, when he recorded Dirt Farmer.
Despite the hard times throughout his life, Helm was easygoing and kept things simple. He always returned to music and he gave that music to whatever community he was in. The Midnight Ramble concerts at his Woodstock home showcased some of the best musicians in an informal setting, where the night ended with a potluck dinner, giving the whole thing a feeling of a neighborhood jam … if your neighbors included Emmylou Harris, Pinetop Perkins, Leon Russell, Steve Earl, and Elvis Costello. Many of these concerts throughout the year were benefit concerts to raise funds for different things in Helm’s community such as bringing awareness to substance abuse, mental illness, and developmental disabilities in Orange County, NY or to raise funds for the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
Last night, his wife and daughter posted this message on his website:
Levon is in the final stages of his battle with cancer. Please send your prayers and love to him as he makes his way through this part of his journey.
Thank you fans and music lovers who have made his life so filled with joy and celebration… he has loved nothing more than to play, to fill the room up with music, lay down the back beat, and make the people dance! He did it every time he took the stage…
We appreciate all the love and support and concern.
From his daughter Amy, and wife Sandy
Here are a few tunes from throughout his career:
With The Band
Funny how someone you’ve never met can touch you so deeply and be an inspiration in so many ways. I hope the final leg of the journey is an easy one, Levon. Thank you for all the wonderful music.