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Levon Helm: the godfather of Americana music

A new biography digs into the life and work of the musician and actor

Levon Helm performing with the Levon Helm Band at the Life is Good Festival in 2011.
Levon Helm performing with the Levon Helm Band at the Life is Good Festival in 2011.Erik Jacobs

The story of Levon Helm — singer, multi-instrumentalist, actor, and drawling patriarch of the musical genre we now call Americana — has been told before. Helm told it himself in “This Wheel’s On Fire,” a savory 1993 memoir that recounted not only his own life but the conjoined narrative of the Band, the magnificent ensemble he anchored for decades from the drum stool. There is also Jamie Malanowski’s “The Book of Levon” (2013), which focuses on his post-Band resurrection, and Jacob Hatley’s warts-and-all documentary “Ain’t In It For My Health” (2010).

Now comes “Levon,” a substantial volume from Sandra B. Tooze. The author of a previous book on Muddy Waters, Tooze brings to the table an impressive heap of research, a sure grasp of Helm’s musical accomplishments, and a determination to keep her head, biographically speaking, when she wades into the rancorous collapse of the Band in the mid-Seventies.

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The author is particularly good on Helm’s childhood, most of which he spent in the rural hamlet of Turkey Scratch, Arkansas. “This was cotton country,” she writes, “flat as a drum head,” and Helm was soon familiar with the backbreaking cycle of cultivation. He was also immersed in blues, country, gospel, and jazz from the cradle onwards. Indeed, he seems to have found his vocation at age six, when he attended a show by Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys. “That night changed my life,” he recalled, “and I had no doubt what I wanted to do from then on.”

With impressive dispatch, he did it. A quick study on the drums, Helm was recruited in 1957 by Ronnie Hawkins, a B-list rockabilly fireball. Hawkins was shrewd enough to maintain his home base in Canada, where he could be a big, elaborately pompadoured fish in a small pond. He also burned out his musicians at a brisk clip. One by one, he replaced his Arkansan crew with Canadians, until the eventual roster of the Band was in place: Helm, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson.

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After cutting their teeth with Hawkins, they went out on their own, backed Bob Dylan on his amphetamine-fueled tours of the mid-Sixties, then retreated to a pink house in Saugerties, New York. They emerged in 1968 with “Music from Big Pink,” which prompted George Harrison to call them “the best band in the history of the universe.” The next recording, “The Band,” was even better — an astonishment. There were more albums, more drugs (an understatement), more tours, more car crashes, and a festering sense of resentment that Robertson had nabbed most of the songwriting credits. They went out in style in 1976, when Martin Scorsese memorialized their final concert in “The Last Waltz.”

Diehard fans will doubtless find blasphemous this time-lapse account of the Band. But that is one of the great virtues of Tooze’s book: she reminds us of the richness of Helm’s post-Band existence. There was, for example, his career as an actor, which began when he played Loretta Lynn’s father in “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (1980). “You try to do the same thing for a scene that you would do for a song,” he said, figuring that both required “life and breath; heart and soul.” With his Delta diction and dyed-in-the-wool humanity, Helm enlivened film after film, whether it was a prestige vehicle like “The Right Stuff” (1983) or a straight-to-video turkey, of which there were several.

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His trajectory as a musician was spottier. There were occasional Band reunions, to which Robertson was not invited, and while the updated ensemble had its magical moments, the old, beautiful cohesion was gone. The miracle is that it lasted for eight years in the first place — a band is like a five-dimensional marriage, just waiting to dissolve into acrimony and indifference. Richard Manuel’s suicide, during a reunion tour in 1986, ensured that the original camaraderie would not be captured again.

Early or late, nobody could sing quite like Helm, or match his approach to the drums, so full of effortless funk and eloquent silence (listen to twenty seconds of “The Weight” and you’ll know exactly what I mean). As time went by, however, he tilled some pretty meager fields. The clubs got smaller, the pay lousier, and he suffered the first of several bankruptcies in 1998. Then, like a latter-day Job, this most inimitable of American voices was told that he had throat cancer, which would require the removal of his vocal cords. His reaction was typically stoical: “All I ever wanted to be is a drummer.”

Yet Helm opted for radiation treatments instead — and his voice returned. It was huskier, grainier, with an older man’s sense of vulnerability and hurt. It was also perfect for the material on “Dirt Farmer” (2007), which marked his final flowering. These were the songs he had learned as a child in Turkey Scratch, now stamped with decades of experience. The fatigue was audible, but so was the joy, and the disc won Helm a Grammy, his first. The joy carried him through five final years of acclaim, until the cancer returned and he died on April 19, 2012. The life and breath, in his formula, were gone. The heart and soul, expressed in the twang of his voice and the unerring thwack of his stick against the snare, are permanent.

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Levon: From Down in the Delta to the Birth of THE BAND and Beyond

By Sandra B. Tooze

Diversion Books, 400 pages, $29.99


James Marcus is a writer, editor, and translator. He is at work on his second book, Glad to the Brink of Fear: A Portrait of Emerson in Thirteen Installments.