God and Country Music: In Memory of Levon Helm
Each week in God and Country Music, Nick Rynerson gives country music a chance and examines the world of Americana, folk, alt-country, and popular country music.
This week, rock and roll (and especially the Americana/folk stream) lost one of its greatest voices. The legendary Mark “Levon” Helm finally lost his long battle with throat cancer at the age of 71.
Levon Helm was the drummer and key vocalist for the folk-rock powerhouse, The Band, for which he was a constant for three decades. Known as the great vocalist behind “The Weight”, “Up On Cripple Creek” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and not to mention, he was one of the best drummers of last 50 years (listen to the drums he laid down on “Chest Fever” and marvel). Those in the Americana world also know Helm as an impressive solo musician who made some darn good folk music in his later days. His final album Ramble at the Ryman won best Americana album at the Grammys last year, serving as a nightcap to an impressive career for an Arkansas farm boy.
If you are anything like me, you have probably already read his New York Times obituary and shed a few tears listening to Music From Big Pink in the last week. There have been many an obit and column on the towering drummer from Elaine, Arkansas but the implications of his life and music have yet to be exhausted.
While playing with The Band and backing Bob Dylan, Helm was a key inspiration for the southern country sound that became synonymous with his Canadian-Minnesotan band members. And like the Christian gospel taking hold of gentiles, he converted the Dylan and the Band’s sound with a captivating version of the American South’s music. But it wasn’t first his sound that radiated the Imago Dei: it was his steadfastness.
He was the founder of the Hawks, who became the Band, who cemented their place in Rock and Roll by being,
“more inventive than the Byrds, spunkier than the Eagles and less smug than Steely Dan”
Levon Helm was a rock when The Band was crumbling in the mid-80s. On their comeback tour in 1986, when band mate Richard Manuel committed suicide, Helm was able to replace him and continue on the tour, where Helm would drum, sing all of his staples and even cover some vocal responsibilities of Robertson (who had bailed on the reunion) and the recently deceased Manuel.
Then in 1998 he was diagnosed with throat cancer and told that he would probably never sing again, just months before Rick Danko (the ‘Paul McCartney’ of The Band) died of an overdose. Greater men have crumbled under much less, yet the same guy who hitchhiked up to Canada to get his band off the ground, was not willing to give in. After all of this Helm didn’t lay down, but kicked out 5 solo albums, two of those winning Grammys for best Americana album. In a way, Levon Helm had a twelve-year encore where he fought through an illness and the literal death of his Band to make some of the best Americana of the last decade.
I do not know whether or not Levon Helm was a Christian, but he finished as well as any that I have seen. The story of Levon Helm is a goldmine of allegory with the power to reveal the God who created and has now met him. I am in awe of the refinement that Helm’s suffering created in his music over the years and I wonder at the fruit of him taking his Southern sound to a new land where it was received for it’s beauty, authenticity and simplicity. As celebrities and bands come and go, few have gone with more dignity than Levon Helm. May he not be quickly forgotten.
If you don’t know Helm, check these out. He really is Americana royalty.
Nice write-up. Without Levon and the Band, there may not be an Uncle Tupelo, a Son Volt, or God forbid…no Wilco. I know folks who say the can’t get past the “twang” but it’s part of what made Levon, Levon.
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