Tags: Helm | the band | Dixie | Dylan

Levon Helm Was Special

Monday, 14 May 2012 12:07 PM Current | Bio | Archive

The world lost a great voice when Levon Helm passed away. Best known as one of the lead singers in the Band, the iconic 1960s-70s rock and roll band, Helm was one of the American South’s finest ambassadors in both his devotion to the music of his native Arkansas and his pride.

You know Helm from his music: “The Weight,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” Ophelia” and many other gems. If you remember the film “The Last Waltz,” Helm’s impact is indelible. He was a rare breed of singing drummers, never missing either a beat on the drums or a note in his vocals.

Levon Helm performs at the 2010 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
(Getty Images)
I saw the Band in concert and I can tell you that Helm was one of the most exciting musicians on the scene. He loved playing music. He smiled when he sang and kept to a lifelong point of whistling while he worked. Helm was an inspiration. It was evident that he was having the time of his life on stage — and so did we Band lovers sitting in the audience all over the world. I miss seeing him perform his tunes.

When the 71-year-old Helm died, after a bout with cancer, the music world lavishly showed its enormous respect in tributes. I have to admit that the outpouring of genuine affection for Helm and his music stunned me. He had by then successfully reinvented himself in his post-Band incarnation as a gentleman country blues singer with a strong following.

He wisely opened his Woodstock home to host “The Midnight Ramble,” for which fans flocked from all over the world to watch Helm and his friends play music in a relaxed setting. I hear the cider was pretty cool, too.

Helm was never a phony. He was sincere and there was never a question of where he stood. He maintained a grudge against Robbie Robertson, the Band’s leader from the mid-70s to his death, because he felt Robertson had hogged the group’s writing royalties and Helm resented Robertson’s decision to stop touring, which basically led to the break-up of one of the most respected rock groups of all time.

The Band backed Bob Dylan in the 60s and 70s, helping Dylan break new ground in his electric music. Dylan and Helm remained lifelong fellow admirers.

Today’s young musicians could learn a lot from Levon Helm’s example in terms of maintaining a commitment to your art and craft, and giving audiences good vibrations.

Levon Helm had a special impact on his fans’ lives because of his talent, honesty, and no-frills approach. He’ll be missed.

Jon Friedman writes the Media Web column for MarketWatch.com. Click here to read his latest column. (Friedman is also the author of "Forget About Today: Bob Dylan's Genius for (Re)invention, Shunning the Naysayers and Creating a Personal Revolution," which Penguin will publish in August.) Read more reports from Jon Friedman — Click Here Now.

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