There were flowers and a closed casket. And standing next to it, an unmanned drumset. Mourners from nearby and as far away as Australia arrived by the thousands at the
Woodstock, New York, barn that served as a communal performance/gathering space for Levon Helm’s joyous Midnight Ramble concert series, featuring stellar guests and good will. Lingering in the shared sadness was a question that Levon had once phrased in song: “Where do we go from here?” Fearing the end to an era that had brought joy to so many, the music lovers hoped to somehow revive the Rambles.
Bob Dylan told the press that Helm “was one of the last true great spirits of my or any other generation.” But none said it better than Levon’s wife, Sandy, who announced his final stages of cancer: “He had loved nothing more than to play, to fill the room up with music, lay down the backbeat, and make the people dance.”
Decades ago, when Helm was a member of the Band, the legendary group planned to record its Stage Fright LP in a free concert setting at a Woodstock theater. Local authorities denied the permit, citing fears that the already too-famous band would draw further unwanted attention and troubles to a quiet town. But now flags throughout Ulster County flew at half-mast to honor Helm’s lasting contributions to the community.
Woodstock is a microcosm of Helm’s contributions to the wider world of music. As a cornerstone and cofounder of the Band, the drummer created music exhilaratingly new yet old as the mountains of his native Arkansas. By the time they exited the world stage, Levon and the Band had changed American music forever.
Mark Lavon “Levon” Helm was born in Elaine, Arkansas, on May 26, 1940, to a cotton-farming family. Growing up in the town of Turkey Scratch, he knew the rigors of hard work but also the great joys of music in a family that embraced singing and playing together as a way of life.
Young Levon absorbed roots music from Southern radio stations broadcasting blues, country, R&B, and the Grand Ole Opry. From an early age, he witnessed seminal musicians passing through, including Conway Twitty and Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. Later, as a teen, lightning struck when he saw Jimmy Van Eaton play drums with Jerry Lee Lewis.
When Levon was nine, his father bought him a guitar. By high school he was playing in his first rock group, the Jungle Bush Beaters, and drumming in the school band. At seventeen he was making a splash gigging in clubs in Helena and eventually sitting in at nearby Memphis nightspots. Ronnie Hawkins, the outrageous, larger-than-life rockabilly singer, sought out the fledgling teen, convincing him that Canada offered better money and steadier work. Helm was sold.
Now a member of Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, Helm uprooted to Toronto and hit the road, playing a hardscrabble six-nights-a-week route of rough roadhouses. It was heaven to the wide-eyed drummer. His bandmates consistently mispronounced “Lavon,” so he called himself Lee-von, and it stuck.
By the early ’60s, Hawkins had recruited four Canadians—Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Robbie Robertson, and finally Garth Hudson—who were destined to become the Band. After endless road grinding, the ambitious sidemen agreed they had outgrown their leader. The five ventured out on their own in 1963, reborn as Levon and the Hawks, and cut their teeth on club tours of Canada and the American South, generating a growing buzz along the way.
Their grit paid off when a call came in offering another gig as a backup band—this time with none other than Bob Dylan. Dylan had just come off his infamous Newport Folk Festival date where he’d “gone electric” to the violent uproar of folk purists. The Hawks signed on and jumped aboard the ongoing electric/folk roller coaster. In August of 1965, at a Queens, New York, stadium concert, Dylan braced the group with the combat briefing, “Just keep playing no matter how weird it gets.” And weird it got. Caring too deeply about music to endure the booing and literal fruit throwing, Helm instead chose to quit. He traveled back south to work grueling shifts on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico rather than put up with the negativity. The others pressed on, with Bobby Gregg initially covering the drum seat.
When Dylan suffered injuries in a motorcycle accident, he returned to Woodstock in July 1966 to recuperate. The four remaining Hawks (now casually referred to as “the band”) retreated there as well. Renting a now-iconic pink house in nearby West Saugerties, the group shedded for a rebirth, hunkering down to focus on its own writing.
The upstate setting yielded the material for the groundbreaking debut album Music From Big Pink. And the continuous jams/workshopping along with Dylan became the raw materials for the widely bootlegged sessions released legitimately seven years later as The Basement Tapes. An imminent record deal developed via Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman, and Levon got the pleading call from his bandmates to return to the fold. He hastily packed his suitcase.
Big Pink arrived in July of 1968 as a breath of fresh air, and its impact has never faded. While scores of rock acts of the time were increasingly absorbed by the trappings of psychedelia and studio trickery, the Band’s debut offered a homespun earthy sound devoid of bluster. It arrived as an affirmation that the inspirations and materials musicians needed for the future were right at their feet: the deep traditions of rural America, from mountain music to gospel to R&B, rockabilly, and especially the sounds of the deep South and folk music. Big Pink echoed an earlier world where communities gathered to share their lives in song.
The musical quilt of the Band was at once oddly strange and deeply familiar and resonant, like the soundtrack of the American collective unconscious. It was a seminal and lasting statement of a genre only much later referred to as Americana.
Al Kooper wrote in a 1968 Rolling Stone review that the LP was “an event and should be treated as one… [Helm] is an exciting drummer with many ideas to toss around. I worked with him in Dylan’s first band and he kept us together like an enormous iron metronome.”
The group delayed touring until its live debut at San Francisco’s Winterland in April of 1969. It was a year of mega-festivals, including appearances at Woodstock and alongside Dylan at the Isle of Wight.
Following the success of Big Pink came The Band (1969), an even more cohesive statement that further heightened the group’s importance. Another brilliant outing, Stage Fright, arrived in 1970, this time with a darker, searching tone. While the Band was blessed with several distinctively different vocalists, Helm’s soaring, expressive twang was especially appropriate when spinning tales of the South. As a result, Levon lent his unmistakable sound to many of the quintet’s best-known classics, including “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “The Weight,” and “Up on Cripple Creek.” It was a sound that was sometimes yearning, sometimes rascally, and often simultaneously world-weary—yet defiantly unsinkable.
Much like his vocals, Helm’s drumming was a stew pot echoing early rock ’n’ roll, swing, rockabilly, country, blues, soul, gospel, and R&B. Levon’s creative, song-serving drum parts varied endlessly, depending on the story he chose to tell, from the orchestrated patterns of “The Shape I’m In” and “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” to the very minimal. A mesmerizing example of “less is more” is heard on the poignant meditation on mortality “I Shall Be Released.” Helm placed his snare drum upside down and during verses raked his fingers across the snare bed. The effect was like the sound of a distant military drum carried on the wind.
Although Helm is commonly remembered for his loose, swampy, backphrased feel, in truth his approach was quite versatile. Listen to “The Shape I’m In” for a more driving, on-top vibe. And notice his beautiful light, suspended feel on the dreamy “Tears of Rage” and the jazzy triplet lilt of “Sleeping.” On “Life Is a Carnival,” Levon creates a quirky fun-house take on New Orleans funk by simply shifting accents between various downbeats. For a dead locked-in approach, look no further than the funky groove on the live cut “Don’t Do It.”
A trademark was Helm’s deft manipulation of ruffs and open rolls as gracenote groups, creating waves of smooth ghosted subdivisions that often set up backbeats, as heard prominently on “Cripple Creek.” The coloring echoed the flourishes of New Orleans secondline street-beat snare drumming. A related nuance is the unexpected pressroll crescendo leading into the crashing downbeat on the chorus of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” The effect is cathartic. Helm also employed a very syncopated bass drum foot, yet it was frequently used in a subtle kit balanced approach rather than as part of a heavy bass/snare center.
True to his selfless goal of serving the song above all else, Helm sometimes deferred to keyboardist Richard Manuel, who was also a drummer, albeit in a less-tutored manor. Levon occasionally found Manuel’s unorthodox approach more appropriate for a particular track, so he handed over the sticks, often freeing himself up in turn to play mandolin.
The sound of Levon’s drums on the early Band LPs was a perfect match for the group’s dark, weathered, bass-end timbres, which is especially apparent on The Band. It was a distinctive sound at a time when rock production was exploiting an enhanced high end.
Keyboardist Garth Hudson, a master of vintage sounds, enjoyed scouring out-of-the-way instrument sources, and he helped Helm find the vintage kit—nabbed for $130—that’s heard throughout that second LP. The album pulses with a loose bass drum head and the thump of detuned toms. “You can hear the wood in there,” Levon said. He used the thick low toms to great drama on Big Pink’s “The Weight,” on which his setup fills succeed with only three fat, resonant notes. He also preferred the arcane wooden snare rim, saying that he loved the “knock” of a perfectly angled rimshot.
The first three Band LPs are commonly acknowledged as the group’s defining masterpieces, but the follow-ups offered several gems as well. Cahoots (1971) contains classic cuts such as Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” featuring a warm, humorous Helm vocal, and the jubilant “Life Is a Carnival.” The excellent double live Rock of Ages (1972) hit the top ten with a boisterous take on Band classics supplemented by a rollicking brass unit. Levon is heard in top form here, driving the expanded ensemble. Moondog Matinee (1973) offers a loving throwback to the R&B covers of the group’s Hawks days. Northern Lights–Southern Cross (1975), the finest studio disc of the latter years, yielded the beautiful “Acadian Driftwood,” and Islands (1977) supplied a wrap-up of odds-and-ends tracks. The Band also reunited with Dylan on his 1974 LP Planet Waves and toured the U.S. with him, this time appearing as a featured co-force, as captured on the live Before the Flood album.
Although the Band’s recordings are his greatest musical testament, Helm amassed an impressive discography as a sideman, which alone could have earned him greatness. He recorded with Ringo Starr, Graham Nash, Todd Rundgren, David Bromberg, Norah Jones, Rufus Wainwright, Charlie Musselwhite, Carl Perkins, Emmylou Harris, Joe Walsh, Los Lobos, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, and Muddy Waters. Alongside Band-mates, he also sang in Roger Waters’ massive 1990 production of The Wall in Berlin.
By 1976, interpersonal strains and the rigors of the road caused Robbie Robertson to lobby for disbanding the group. Helm vehemently disagreed, and the wound between them was never patched.
The Band’s grandiose farewell took place on Thanksgiving 1976, bolstered by a grand roster of superstar musical guests. The event, dubbed the Last Waltz, was documented by a 1978 Martin Scorcese film and an LP of the same name. Even though Helm disowned the film, saying it unevenly glorified Robertson’s role in the quintet’s collective creativity, it nevertheless remains an archival treasure, capturing Levon’s charismatic musical command and reaffirming his major role in this great legacy.
Following the group’s grand finale, Helm unexpectedly branched into acting, delivering an outstanding performance in the 1980 film Coal Miner’s Daughter. His friend Tommy Lee Jones gave him an acting crash course over a bottle of Wild Turkey. As Levon told it, he realized that acting is not all that different from music. “It’s a certain rhythm and phrasing,” he explained. For research, he even took on a few shifts in a coal mine. The drummer went on to act in eleven films, including The Right Stuff (1983) and The Dollmaker (1984).
The demise of the Band also gave Helm the opportunity to release his own solo projects, starting with 1977’s Levon Helm & the RCO All-Stars, a grooving outing supported by Dr. John, Booker T & the MGs, and Paul Butterfield. A string of solo discs followed, with Levon Helm (1978), the well-received American Son (1980), and a second self-titled album (1982).
Missing the brotherhood of the Band, Helm recruited Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson for a 1983 resurrection. The group, with supplemental personnel, toured and released a concert video. But tragedy struck in 1986 when they endured the suicide of their comrade Manuel while on the road.
In 1993, the drummer’s fascinating autobiography, This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band, coauthored by Stephen Davis, was published. It’s a colorful volume that captures the rolling rhythm of Levon’s oral spinning of tales. Soon after, the first reborn-Band CD, Jericho, was released. The disc proved that despite the absence of previous central songwriter Robertson, the sound and spirit of the group was still vital. The members followed up with High on the Hog (1996) and Jubilation (1998), until Danko’s passing in 1999 brought the group’s final chapter to a close.
Helm’s own greatest challenge arrived in 1998, when he was diagnosed with throat cancer. His once expressive instrument dwindled to a whisper. A tumor was removed, and over the following years Levon endured twenty-eight radiation treatments.
From the adversity, however, came triumph. Due to physical challenges and mounting medical bills, Levon was determined that if he couldn’t travel to bring music to the people, he would invite the people to come to the music. He set upon converting his barn/recording studio to an informal gathering/concert space, and soon he was hosting spontaneous events dubbed Midnight Rambles. Starting in 2004, the warm homespun presentations became a sensation, resulting in more than 150 shows featuring a growing number of top-star guests.
Helm kept performing and, amazingly, slowly regained his voice. Though not as robust as before, his singing retained its expressive call. The Rambles gave Levon a phoenixlike resurgence. With the core of his Rambles band, he toured sporadically, and then he released Dirt Farmer, his most tradition-grounded recording—and the recipient of the 2008 Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album. That same year, the Band received a Lifetime Achievement Award Grammy.
The inspired and even more expansive follow-up, Electric Dirt (2009), garnered a Grammy for Best Americana Album. Levon went full-circle in 2009, performing at the fortieth anniversary of the Woodstock festival. The 2011 CD Ramble at the Ryman, the soundtrack to a PBS presentation of a live Nashville concert, gave him yet another Best Americana Album Grammy.
Always evolving, Levon continued turning out great drum tracks in his later years. With a consciously stripped-down style, he switched from traditional to matched grip in order to “discipline” himself to concentrate on the beauty of a simpler backbeat. Electric Dirt in particular boasts tracks that stand with his finest groove moments.
Helm performed nearly until the very end, when he finally succumbed to complications from cancer on April 19, 2012, at New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, at age seventy-one. Longtime friend and Ramble musical director/guitarist Larry Campbell told Rolling Stone, “All his friends were there, and it seemed like Levon was waiting for them. Ten minutes after they left, we sat there and he just faded away. He did it with dignity. It was even two days ago they thought it would happen within hours, but he held on. It seems like he was Levon up to the end, doing it the way he wanted to do it. He loved us, we loved him.”
In the “simple” strains of American roots music, Helm heard a bottomless wealth, a source of inspiration and innovation, a directive for a full life. In his singing, he found a channel through which he could express the day-today struggles of common folk that resonated as a greater collective experience. In his drumming, he found a vehicle for sharing joy, sorrow, struggle, and fulfillment. In a life-threatening illness, he found an opportunity for rebirth. In death, he found a graceful exit, leaving behind a forum in which others could carry on. Whether Levon was singing, drumming, strumming, writing, or acting, his art made us feel as if we were gathered around a timeless campfire.
Ulster County’s flags are now restored to their full heights. Those gathering Woodstock mourners who asked, “Where do we go from here?” need only reflect upon the inspirational resilience of Levon Helm’s life and recall another lyric he sang with the Band, on “All La Glory”:
Before the leaves all turn brown
Before they tumble to the ground
You will find the harmony
Wait and see
Over the course of a full half century, GARTH HUDSON spent untold hours alongside Levon Helm, as they and the other members of the Band honed their craft. Here the wizardly multi-instrumentalist riffs on the process. Jeff Potter mans the recorder.
“All those pleasant memories of Levon Helm… I would call Levon’s drumming very crafty. Very crafty. Somebody used this word: They said he was the ‘foxiest’ drummer. He accompanied songs, just as I did. That’s what we did a great percentage of the time, isn’t it? It wasn’t a jam band. There weren’t many long solos— somewhat in the tradition of basic country music and jump music, rhythm and blues. We paid great attention to the language of blues and jazz. We would hear twelve bars and we knew it as a work, a piece of art.
“Levon had a great touch. His special thing: the pickup grace notes that precede the beat. He did it subtly, and he did it so you almost didn’t hear it. It was a treatment—tapping to find out how close you are to being on the money. When I say on the money I don’t mean precise like a machine, but having the same feel as the other people you’re playing with. There we go round the mulberry bush again: It’s reiterated exercises that can heal and cure. It also helps maintain focus.
“Along with Levon’s drumming, you’d have to include Richard [Manuel]. Levon said more than one time, ‘Richard’s my favorite drummer; he’s a natural drummer.’ That’s Richard on drums on ‘Rag Mama Rag,’ just laying it in there with those straight 8ths against the triplet—one shifting against another in the middle of a phrase, as you hear more obviously in old Memphis piano playing and drumming too.
“Richard and Levon used to do the hambone together— slapping skin on skin. They were good at it. It has something to do with having that kind of muscle setup. Both Levon and Richard had it. It was a fluid drive. Their bones and everything just worked well. Fluid drive!
“We listened to all the stuff over the radio. A New Orleans feel is a combination of swing and Latin. We picked it up. Levon lived near New Orleans. Of course he heard it and was most influenced by the folks that he saw play on the King Biscuit Flour Hour stage, the rambles that happened down there. He was watching this stuff and gathering information: different nuances, techniques, hints, tips, and quotes. He was there analyzing in some way. Or remembering a time and a place when that shuffle had that straight thing goin’ on along with it.
“Levon watched. He went to see Sonny Boy Williamson and took us there. Ronnie [Hawkins], Robbie [Robertson], and Levon rented a hotel room near Helena, Arkansas, near where Levon was born. They got Sonny Boy over there to play the harmonica. Got a little amp in there. We all jammed with him on a Sunday afternoon. What I’m saying is that Levon watched and wanted—as we all did. We loved to speak that language well. We knew that was one way of maintaining a feeling of…of…well, I’m thinking of that wonderful word that the good Lord sometimes uses—integrity!”
GREATNESS BEGINS WITH THE MAN
JIM KELTNER recognized Helm’s unique gifts—as a musician, and as a humanitarian—the moment he met him, all those years ago. Ken Micallef gets the story.
A month before that Thanksgiving Day in 1976, when Martin Scorcese filmed the Band’s farewell concert film, The Last Waltz, Jim Keltner was in the studio recording “Josie” with Steely Dan. A week later, Keltner was back in the studio with Band producer John Simon, playing with the future unknown Heath Martinez. Keltner has seen many years and many sessions since then, but Levon Helm remains one of his greatest heroes.
“When you spend time around someone and you watch how they treat people,” Jim says, “you get some real insight into what makes that person tick. Levon Helm was an extremely honorable person. He would be the guy to go get you a chair if there wasn’t one; he would always ask you if you needed anything, and it didn’t matter if he knew you or not. He was just truly a caring person. Levon changed my whole world of drumming, my entire attitude about playing the drums.
“At one point,” Keltner recalls, “I went to the house where the Band was recording their second album, up in the Hollywood Hills. I spent a couple days at the house hanging with Levon. By the time I left I was convinced that I would never play the same again. Hearing what Levon was doing with the Band in those hours I spent with them, how they were playing together, and particularly how Levon was interpreting the songs, I remember thinking, Man, I play completely wrong. I’m talking too much, I’m having too much conversation with myself during the song, and it has to stop. I remember saying to Levon, ‘If I could just hit one tom the way you do and make it be so meaningful the way you do…’ But he stopped me and said, ‘Jimmy, if I could play those damn little rolls that you do…’ I told him I would have traded with him in a heartbeat. We had that kind of relationship.”
Keltner agrees with those who say that Helm’s style was a direct result of the hours he spent listening to the radio as a kid in Arkansas. “And he got to see those guys play,” Keltner adds. “Sonny Boy Williamson and those rhythm sections. That is irreplaceable. You can learn from hearing a record, but to see it going down in front of you, that’s like nothing else.
“Levon had the touch and the feel of those early blues drummers,” Keltner continues. “That’s where he was coming from. But he lived in the world of rock, so the way he played rock was coming straight out of that blues thing. His choice of where to play a fill and where not to play and how to make the time feel so sexy was extraordinary. He would start to play a fill and you’d think you knew where it was going, and then it would shift. Or it would be finished before you expected and leave you with all that space to think about what you’d just heard. With any great player, what you play is who you are. And your choice of notes—that’s what thrills people.”
Keltner suggests that Helm’s already commanding skills were further enhanced by the remarkable musicians he worked with. “As with Ringo and Charlie Watts,” Jim says, “Levon played in an amazing band with amazing players and songwriters—songwriters being key. If you’re fortunate enough as a drummer to be able to play on songs by a great songwriter, especially if there’s more than one in the same band, then your drumming is going to sound a whole lot better. And you’re going to have the time of your life. And that’s extremely important. Levon was very fortunate to be playing with those guys in the Band; part of what made him great was the music he was singing and playing to. And they were fortunate to have him.
“‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ is a favorite of mine,” Keltner says. “I watched the Band mix that song. There was no automation. I sat on the couch at the Hit Factory in New York and watched. That song is meaningful to me on so many levels. To hear Levon sing it—was there ever a voice as distinctive and chilling as his? Every song Levon ever sang and played did it to you, but ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ is the pinnacle. And I still cry any time I hear it.”
AN UNDENIABLE PRESENCE
Latter-day Band member RANDY CIARLANTE made it his business to know Helm’s drumming inside out. Bob Girouard finds out what he learned.
When Randy Ciarlante talks about “the boss,” it’s not Bruce Springsteen he’s referring to. Rather, he reserves that title for one man only: Levon Helm. Ciarlante shared a thirty-two-year friendship with Helm and played a significant role in some of his milestones: Occupying the second drum chair throughout the Band’s decade-long resurgence in the ’90s, Randy accompanied the group on its comeback tours and appears on the Jericho, High on the Hog, and Jubilation albums. As a close creative partner, he gained unique insight into the roots and idiosyncrasies of Helm’s magical drumming.
“Levon’s infatuation with the drums came with Sonny Boy Williamson’s King Biscuit Time radio show in Helena, Arkansas,” Ciarlante says. “Peck Curtis, Sonny Boy’s drummer, inspired him first. The first thing he really learned how to do was a shuffle. He always said that Peck was having so much fun, and he wanted to do the same thing.
“Jack Nance, who played with Conway Twitty, was another influence, especially for showmanship. I believe Levon got his deep pocket from watching those Memphis cats like Al Jackson, Willie Hall, and his favorite jazz drummer, Louis Hayes. He loved Hayes’ cymbal work. He also dug the Southern marching bands: Grambling, Arkansas Razorbacks, etc. His famous shuffle against the 8th-note beat was something he couldn’t describe technically, but instead he talked about Curtis, Sam Lay, and Earl Palmer laying down a ‘fatback.’ Jazz guys at the time were also using a triplet feel, and with rock ’n’ roll crossing over, all of a sudden you’re floating that triplet in with the 8th note.
“There’s a big difference between swinging and playing straight,” Ciarlante continues, “and what made Levon so special was that he combined the two. I used to love when he got off the hi-hat and laid into a march feel. When you played alongside Levon, you had to learn how to stay out of the way. You can practice double bass drum technique, paradiddles, funk beats, all that stuff, but none of that is going to work, because he doesn’t come from that. He just plays. It’s a musical, lyrical, and melodic thing.”
Around November of 2011, the boss requested that Ciarlante come on board with the Levon Helm Band in the second drum chair. “Knowing they had just come off their third Grammy Award,” Randy shares, “I wondered, What do they need me for? It was and is a phenomenal band. He was visibly happy I was back in the fold, though, and I really felt that we recaptured some of that old magic. I know we laughed a lot. Whether he knew how sick he was or not, he never complained. He was the most intense warrior I’ve ever seen. He loved what he was doing so much and was an inspiration to the end.
“I always had to prepare hard to play with musicians of the level that I’ve been fortunate to work with. Levon, on the other hand, had a gift. His personality as a singer and a drummer were unique. He’s among the select few that when you hear them you know it’s special. The feel, the voice, the undeniable presence took hold of you every time he played, sang, or told a story. Lee also had that distinct quality of making everyone around him better. He was the quintessential band component.”
THE MASTER INTERPRETER
In 2008, MD contributor Ken Micallef recorded for posterity a historic conversation between Helm and renowned drummer/producer STEVE JORDAN. Here Micallef reconnects with Jordan and gathers further insight into the musician that Steve calls “a complete artist.”
“You have to play some good music to get the people on the floor. I want to hear the meat. Until you can do that, it’s suspect to me.”
When Levon Helm said this to groove master Steve Jordan for a Modern Drummer cover story, Jordan’s excitement was palpable. Steve relished the opportunity to ask Levon not only about his drumming but about his amazing life. What came through the interview was two musicians enamored of each other’s talents and enjoying their shared love of music.
“Levon plays the song,” Jordan told MD at the time. “He was born with this beautiful rhythm. When you have a brilliant musician like Levon who has an inherent take on music—he’s a great singer, he’s a composer—with that combination you can’t lose. His drumming is gorgeous, and his interpretation of the song is magnificent. I just love what emanates from the drums when he plays.”
In a recent chat, Jordan says, “Levon is a complete artist and an inspiring human. Basically, he took the same approach when he was acting as when he got behind the kit playing with the Band or played mandolin. When he couldn’t sing due to throat cancer, it didn’t make him any less of a musician. It probably fine-tuned his musicianship even more, if that’s humanly possible. Levon was a complete and total inspiration as a human being.
“Levon is a true storyteller,” Jordan goes on. “There’s the controversy over who wrote the songs in the Band. Levon thought he was co-writing some stuff, then he found out he wasn’t. Obviously the songs credited to Robbie Robertson are solely his, and Levon is singing them. But they are obviously [cowritten], because you can’t tell a story like that if you didn’t have something to do with them. Levon’s Grammy-winning solo records validate that idea. I wasn’t in the room with them, but I am a musician and I know how collaboration can be murky, and how people can forget what they did and didn’t do. But the proof is in the music. It speaks for itself.”
Jordan cites “Up on Cripple Creek” as his favorite Levon Helm performance. “‘Cripple Creek’ has one of the greatest introductions ever recorded,” Steve says. “The groove, the musical choices, every note that’s played, the sound, you name it—it’s just incredible. Then it goes into the first verse, where Levon sings something that sounds like he’s just talking about his life. You’re sucked into his story. You’re not thinking about how great he’s singing or about the groove; the guy is just telling you a story that’s irresistible.
“Then the song gets into your consciousness. You think, How can I do that? How does Levon sing and it doesn’t sound like he’s drumming, and how does he drum and it doesn’t sound like he’s singing? Some singers who sing and play drums, the drums sound blocky or there is no nuance. Very few drummers can play and sing with such fluidity and independence. There are people who do it, but you can sense the mechanics. Levon has quintessential independence. And he’s so natural. It makes it even freakier. How does he do that? And he passed it on to his daughter, Amy, who is a hell of a drummer. It’s in the genes.”
Style & Analysis — Levon Helm
by Eric Novod
Perhaps never again will country, blues, rock ’n’ roll, and rhythm and blues be combined so effortlessly, musically, and soulfully as in the drumming of the late Levon Helm. In this memorial Style & Analysis, we examine Helm’s common groove choices, his constant awareness of dynamics, and his mastery of lyrical drumming, enhanced by the fact that he was delivering some of rock’s greatest vocal performances right along with the grooves. Any compartmentalization between rhythm, melody, and harmony vanishes in Helm’s drumming, leaving behind loads of “playing for the song” source material for all of us to learn from.
We’re going to explore the technical end of the Band drummer’s style from here on out, but let’s let Levon remind us what it’s truly all about, as he said once in MD: “If you give it good concentration, good energy, good heart, and good performance, the song will play you.”
The Band, “The Weight,” Music From Big Pink
After a 16th-note-triplet turnaround, Helm displays many of his favorite moves in the span of a few measures here—the stand-alone snare drum, combinations of linear and syncopated patterns, and a constant implied swing with occasional, powerful straight-8th-note statements. (1:00, 1:17)
The Band, “Up on Cripple Creek,” The Band
This famous intro is Levon personified—layered dynamics, combinations of linear and syncopated ideas, hip ghost notes, and an entirely personal placement of the beat that lives right between straight and swung time. (0:00)
The Band, “Look Out Cleveland,” The Band
Notice how evenly the ride cymbal 16th notes are played throughout this groove, while the subtle dynamic shifts in the bass drum create the movement. Also notice that the downbeats are hit fairly assertively in the first two measures, but then Helm leaves out the bass drum on beat 1 of measure 3. When he comes in on the “e” and the “&,” the beat turns around. (0:57)
The Band, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” The Band
If you ever need an example of soulful drumming, look no further than this track. The spacious march is amazingly lyrical during the intro, and it builds in intensity to the famous crescendo rolls. The accent ideas and ghosted press rolls have become part of the vocabulary used by session greats such as Jim Keltner and Steve Gadd. (1:58)
The Band, “King Harvest (Has Surely Come),” The Band
The bass guitar/kick drum lockup on this tune is all about the 16th notes on beats 2 and 4 of measure 1. Helm also gives a slight funky push on the hi-hat on the “&,” and he occasionally lifts the hi-hat away during a snare drum attack (beat 2, measure 4). (2:18)
Bob Dylan and the Band, “Highway 61 Revisited,” Before the Flood
The Band perfectly matched Bob Dylan’s impulsive energy. When Dylan was ready to go, Helm unleashed some of his most impassioned drumming. Check out this four-on-the floor groove. Levon is essentially playing the same thing on beats 3 and 4, but the accent on the “&” of beat 3 and the open hi-hats on beat 4 make it sound like it’s building. (2:17)
The Band, “Time to Kill,” Stage Fright
There’s a lot of great drumming throughout “Time to Kill,” including fine cowbell work, but this excerpt reveals another important Levon-ism: the quick and frequent jumping from the body of the ride to the bell. Notice how the drummer slightly alters the rhythm of the bell pattern in every measure. (2:09)
The Band, “The Rumor,” Stage Fright
This underrated groove captures Helm at his most complex. In the span of six measures, he moves from the hi-hat to the ride to the bell and then back to the ride—all with direct purpose. The snare and bass drum comping, executed mostly with 16th-note triplets, creates tension and release throughout the section. (1:40)
The Band, “Don’t Do It,” Rock of Ages
This groove is a variation on the “Cripple Creek” theme, complete with “left alone” bass drums on the “e” and “a” of the beat, and quick 32nd-note doubles to conclude phrases. (1:49)
The Band, “Ophelia,” Northern Lights–Southern Cross
Here’s a master class in motivic development. Notice how Levon plays five bass drum notes in measures 2 through 4 and then reduces it to four for the main verse groove (measures 8 through 10). The other measures comprise alternating combinations of the two. It might appear random on the page, but when you check out the track, the addition or absence of the bass drum always reinforces the bass and/or vocal. (0:00)
The Band, “The Shape I’m In,” The Last Waltz
There’s a lot of inspired drumming on the soundtrack to The Last Waltz, and many of the groove choices are quite different from the way they appear on the Band’s studio albums. Here, Levon runs with an energetic four-stroke-roll idea that appears occasionally on the original recording but never this many times in a row. The rolls are clean and effortless and supported by a powerful four-on-the-floor groove. (0:50)
Levon Helm, “Stuff You Gotta Watch,” Electric Dirt
Check out this interesting blues shuffle snare pattern. The accents begin predictably, but then the forceful accent on beat 4 of measures 1 and 2 comes out of nowhere. As the accents become what you’d expect to hear again in measure 3, Levon gets creative with his snare/bass note choices. (0:59)
Levon Helm, “When I Go Away,” Electric Dirt
The open hi-hat releases on the “&” of beat 2 and on beat 3 in this section are given the perfect amount of space. Most of the time the bass drum is played along with the first open hi-hat, except in measure 2, when it’s played along with the second open hi-hat. (1:50).