By: Amber Harvey
Today we celebrate the 73rd birthday of Levon Helm, late singer and drummer of the Band.
Although Helm was the sole American in an otherwise entirely-Canadian group, the Band is about as American as apple pie, July 4th fireworks and the summer road trips that seem all-too incomplete without Classic Rock accompaniment.
An Arkansas native, Mark Lavon Helm grew up in the musically-rich and diverse heart of the Mississippi Delta, where the blues is said to have evolved into Rock and Roll.
Helm got his first guitar at age 9—though he also played the harmonica, mandolin and various other stringed instruments. As a teenager, he saw live performances by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, whose full-percussion set inspired him to pick up the drums, as well.
After years playing in backing bands for Conway Twitty, Ronnie Hawkins and, most famously, Bob Dylan, Helm would finally find himself in a stand-alone group—the Band—whose long career would come to boast some of Americana’s most celebrated folk-rock songs, such as “Up on Cripple Creek,” “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”
A masterful jam session-ist and advocate of artist collaboration, Helm regularly held live shows, or Midnight Ramble Sessions, at his personal studio and barn in Woodstock, New York. Bringing in such talent as Kris Kristofferson, the Black Crowes, Little Sammy Davis, the Muddy Waters Tribute Band and Norah Jones, the sessions not only drew worldwide audiences over the years, but also demonstrated the virtues of communally-created music fare.
Helm is survived by his wife Sandra Dodd Helm and daughter Amy Helm, who follows in her father’s footsteps in being both a vocalist and multi-instrumentalist.
After Helm’s death in April 2012, the music world responded by holding Love for Levon, a benefit concert to maintain the Helm family’s ownership of their Woodstock property. Thanks to performances by artists like John Mayer, Ray LaMontagne, Gregg Allman, Mavis Staples and Joe Walsh, among many others, the concert allowed Helm’s legacy is to live on through his barn, where the Midnight Ramble Sessions are left to ramble on.
For more information on Levon Helm, check out his website and Facebook, and be sure to share your greatest Helm memories in the comments below!