Levon Helm (1940-2012): “The sun’s gonna shine/ Through the shadows/ When I go away”
Published: Apr 16, 2015
He’s the one who sang “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and "Up on Cripple Creek." He played Loretta Lynn’s father in “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” He’s in rock’s Hall of Fame. Rolling Stone called him one of the hundred best singers of all time, but he could just as easily be in the Guinness Book of World Records as the ultimate multi-tasker: a drummer who could deliver a unique beat even as he sang a rough-hewn lyric.
Rock legends die all the time — for some, death is how they become legends — and the rituals of modern mourning follow. But losing Levon Helm felt different. He was one of the few Authentics, Old School royalty. As his wife and daughter said, "He 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."
Yes, he did. Back in pre-history, I saw The Band as often as I could. And in that hard, ugly time, I listened to The Band’s records often, looking for a way to make sense of our country’s twisted history. That sounds silly today; who looks now to a band for moral, spiritual or intellectual guidance? But those musicians had put in the time, and the care, and the living; they knew things. And the music was proof.
The custodian of The Band’s music was Levon Helm. It could be no other way. There are jokes about drummers — "Question: What does a drummer want to be when he grows up? Answer: A musician" — but the truth is that the drummer is the literal heartbeat of a band. Levon was that, and more. Like Charlie Watts, he expanded the range of his instrument, freeing his partners from the lockstep of the rock beat.
Just by virtue of its name, The Band announced its mission was harmony and collaboration. And yet its primary writer and singer sought the spotlight. As critic Dave Marsh wrote, after seeing The Band’s concert film, “Robbie Robertson demonstrated that he is one of the few people capable of making Bob Dylan seem humble.”
For all Robertson’s genius as a songwriter, the one you remember was Levon. Maybe only insiders grasped the subtleties of his drumming. But when he sang, you knew who you were hearing.
"Virgil Caine is the name, and I served on the Danville train."
“When I get off of this mountain, you know where I want to go…"
"I pulled into Nazareth, I was feelin’ about half past dead."
He came from the country, he was those men. Born in Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, he sounded as if he never got further north than Little Rock. His high-lonesome voice held the howl of the poor farmer and his cousin, the coal miner — it’s pure Americana, mesmerizing in l967, mesmerizing forever, but unlikely to be played now on any radio station not run by a college. That voice is the direct route to an America that was about taking care of your family, Saturday night frolic and an abiding faith that there was glory on the other side of life’s wide, wide river.
His path was destined. At 6, he heard Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys; at 9, he got a guitar; by 12, he and his sister were winning 4-H Club talent contests. At 15, he saw Elvis and was struck by the power of his band; he took up drums, and, at 17, found himself playing with Ronnie Hawkins.
And then, in his early 20s, he teamed up with four Canadians — Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson. The Hawks, as they were known, played music that had pounding American rock at its heart. But it was a very roomy heart — it also contained country, mountain-tinged bluegrass, the 19th century sound of Stephen Foster, folk and blues.
When Bob Dylan went electric, he chose The Hawks as his backup band. Controversy followed, then history. The Hawks became The Band, and, at the height of the Vietnam War, five bearded men who looked as if they’d stepped out of a Matthew Brady photograph made a generation of heartsick Americans forget all about Jimi Hendrix.
Fame came. It was no barrier against Real Life. In 1986, while Helm was in a hotel room down the hall, Richard Manuel committed suicide. In 1991, a fire ravaged Helm’s home and studio in Woodstock, New York. In 1999, Rick Danko died in his sleep.
The bad news turned lethal when Helm, a three-pack-a-day smoker, was diagnosed with throat cancer; he couldn’t speak for years. Chemo killed the disease; his voice was collateral damage. So were his finances. Caught between competing bills, he decided to pay his doctors instead of his mortgage. Inevitably, he was threatened with the loss of his home.
I can’t confirm this story, but it sounds right: Bruce Springsteen showed up with a check for $1 million. Levon thanked him, said he couldn’t accept it, and began the "Midnight Rambles" concert series in his barn, singing with his daughter Amy. The Rambles began attracting audiences — and musical legends — and soon commanded $200 a ticket. There was even a guy in a field waving a flashlight to show you where to park; naturally, he was “Helmland Security.
The Rambles led him back to recording. “Dirt Farmer” sounds as if it’s barn music, as if Levon Helm is a a senior citizen who has just come in from the fields and would like to sit on the porch and have a chew, but has been dragooned to play some tunes.. Be not fooled. It may feature songs that Helm grew up on and songs from modern masters — Steve Earle, Buddy and Julie Miller — that feel just as sepia-toned, but the hand-made metaphors end right there. "Dirt Farmer” is not just entertainment, it’s art, worthy of close listening and deep meditation, superficially simple but musically sophisticated, easily one of the greater releases of 2007. No one booed when it won a Grammy. [To buy the CD of "Dirt Farmer" from Amazon, click here. For the MP3 download, click here.]
Did he know he lived under a shadow? Certainly. You don’t record "Wide River to Cross" for laughs. But it’s "When I Go Away" [To download the MP3 of this song, click here] that sums up the man and his work:
Early in the morning
When the church bells toll
The choir’s gonna sing
And the hearse will roll
On down to the graveyard
Where it’s cold and gray
And then the sun’s gonna shine
Through the shadows
When I go away
Don’t want no sorrow
For this old orphan boy
I don’t want no crying
Only tears of joy
I’m gonna see my mother
Gonna see my father
And I’ll be bound for glory
In the morning
When I go away
I’ll be lifted up to the clouds
On the wings of angels
There’s only flesh and bones
In the ground
Where my troubles will stay
See that storm over yonder
It’s gonna rain all day
But then the sun’s gonna shine
Through the shadows
When I go away
In the liner notes of one of his records, he wrote: “I love you all for giving us a fair hearing."
To know his music is to love him back.