LEVON HELM: MAY 26, 1940—APRIL 19, 2012; R.I.P.

…And we’re back! Due to moving into a new apartment and a mass amount of work to be done towards obtaining a Master’s Degree (and various other complexities and duties that all fall under the general rubric of that’s life) I simply have not been able to do what I wanted for this blog over the past month. However, I return today (most likely only to disappear again…at least for a little while) to pay my respects with a small tribute to Levon Helm, who passed away last Thursday on April 19, 2012, at 1:30 pm at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. He was 71 years old.

Levon is perhaps best remembered for his distinctive drumming—that flesh-and-blood shuffle, the thick sod of his backbeat—as a member the outstanding group known simply as The Band, but he also contributed lead vocals (as well as mandolin and other string instruments) for some of their most memorable songs, such as “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Jim James, talented lead singer for Louisville, Kentucky-based rock band My Morning Jacket had this to say about Levon’s singing back in 2008 for a piece in Rolling Stone Magazine:

“There is something about Levon Helm’s voice that is contained in all of our voices. It is ageless, timeless and has no race. He can sing with such depth and emotion, but he can also convey a good-old funtime growl. […] There is a sense of deep country and family in Levon’s voice, a spirit that was there even before him, deep in the blood of all singers who have heard him, whether they know it or not.”

Raised on a cotton farm in Marvell, Arkansas, Levon Helm hooked up with another Arkansas native, hot-blooded rockabilly singer “Mr. DynamoRonnie Hawkins, who took the teenage Levon on tour in Canada to play drums for his band The Hawks.

Ronnie Hawkins & the Hawks, ca. 1959.
Ronnie Hawkins, vocal, Jimmy Ray Paulman, guitar, Levon Helm, drums, and Willard Jones, piano

They soon had a hit with the song “Forty Days,” an appropriated spin on Chuck Berry’s “Thirty Days”:

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Touring and promoting this hit, Levon stated that they played “places so tough, they make you puke twice and show your razor before they let you in the door” (Scott, 2000). While up in Toronto, Hawkins and Levon recruited the best sidemen they could find, sidemen who would eventually form the nucleus of The Band: Garth Hudson; Richard Manuel; Robbie Robertson; and Rick Danko. A few years later in the late summer of 1965, as The Hawks developed through a grueling tour schedule into a precision outfit with a psychic-like level of musical communication when on stage, Bob Dylan was looking for a backup band for his first U.S. “electric” tour and ended up recruiting this group, which would soon be known by the succinct moniker of The Band. (As a small aside, it should be noted that Hawkins, among many other achievements, went on to perform at the 1992 inaugural party for President Bill Clinton–him being a huge fan of The Hawks–and Hawkins has also performed for every Canadian prime minister since John Diefenbaker).

Robbie Robertson, Bob Dylan, and Levon Helm, 1965.

On October 5th, during Dylan’s extensive tours of 1965, Dylan took Levon and the rest of The Hawks into Colombia’s Studio A at 799 Seventh Avenue in New York, and attempted to flesh out several song-sketches that he had accrued in the two months since he was last in a studio. The majority of the “songs” from this session, such “Jet Pilot” and “Medicine Sunday” would remain little more than fragments, but they were able to record a complete take of “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” a song Dylan had previously tried to record with little success during the Highway 61 Revisited sessions back in July. The version recorded with The Hawk’s was subsequently released as a single on December 21 of that year.

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Other than some particularly clever and corrosive lyrics, in my opinion “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” is a less than stellar composition by Dylan, and it failed to replicate the success of Dylan’s previous two singles (although interestingly enough, with the prior two singles being “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Positively 4th Street,” this song could be seen to complete a trilogy of vicious songs, all full of admonitory barbs delivered by a resolute tongue through a bitter sneer; or something to that effect).  Although I do think the band play the hell out of it despite its shortcomings, apparently Phil Ochs and I shared the opinion that “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” is not among Dylan’s best work from this period: Dylan played him the song when the two were riding in a limousine, and when Ochs expressed a lukewarm feeling about the song, he was kicked out of the car while Dylan yelled, “You’re not a folk singer. You’re a journalist” (Schumacher, 1996).  Again, in my opinion, with its mid-period Dylan sense of absurd wordplay written in a fevered minute and its mercurial whirl of all-around amphetamine fun, the standout recording from this particular session is the much more enjoyable, quasi-parody of the Beatles: “I Wanna Be Your Lover.”

Dylan & The Hawks

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I Wanna Be Your Lover by Bob Dylan

Well, the Rainman comes with his magic wand

And the judge says, “Mona can’t have no bond”

And the walls collide, Mona cries

And the Rainman leaves in the Wolfman’s disguise


I wanna be your lover, baby, I wanna be your man

I wanna be your lover, baby

I don’t wanna be hers, I wanna be yours

Now, the undertaker in his midnight suit

Says to the mad man, “Ain’t you cute!”

Well, the mad man he jumps up on the shelf

And he says, “You ain’t so bad yourself”

OOOooooooooooooooh yeah

I wanna be your lover, baby, I wanna be your man

I wanna be your lover, baby

I don’t wanna be hers, I wanna be yours

Well, Jumpin’ Judy can’t go no higher

She got bullets in her eyes, and they fire

Rasputin he’s so dignified

He touched the back of her head an’ he died


I wanna be your lover, baby, I wanna be your man

I wanna be your lover, baby

I don’t wanna be hers, I wanna be yours

Well, Phaedra with her looking glass

When she lays upon the grass

She gets so messed up she faints –

That’s ’cause she’s so obvious and you ain’t


I wanna be your lover, baby, I wanna be your man

I wanna be your lover, baby

I don’t wanna be hers, I wanna be yours

            Eventually the tour with Dylan (and the vitriolic responses his electric performances provoked from the audience) took their toll and Helm left to work on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Fortunately, Helm returned in time to participate in one of the most prolific periods for both Dylan and The Band: the informal recording sessions conducted while convalescing in the seclusion of the Woodstock area of New York during the latter half of 1967 and early 1968, which resulted in both what is known as The Basement Tapes as well as The Band’s 1968 debut album, Music from Big Pink. Just one of the numerous songs recorded at these sessions that concern themselves with “carnal bewilderment and helpless delight” (Marcus, 1975) is the rambunctious swagger that is the Levon Helm sung “Don’t Ya Tell Henry.”

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Dylan & The Band after the crash

For a year The Hawks had shown Dylan how to cut loose and rock out on stage; now, down in that basement in upstate New York the members of The Band received a one-of-a-kind education in music history and song craft from Dylan, just as they had once learned from Ronnie Hawkins, and soon they were applying this knowledge in creating a unique rustic sound that seemingly had antecedents so familiar, and yet what was produced was some strange, new thing; certainly much stranger than the psychedelic pop that had become the latest fashion.

The Band

"Down in the basement." 1969, Woodstock, NY– The Band — Image by © Elliott Landy/Corbis

At their best, these five guys could create a swirl of sound as if you were dancing drunk and sweaty atop an organ filled with dust, or they could communicate a shiver like fever in the marrow; either way they could make you feel something. For a band so rooted and adept within the entire spectrum of American music, it amazes me that Levon Helm was the only member to actually have been born and raised within this nation. It seems that because of that very fact exactly Helm was chosen to sing lead for one of my favorite The Band tunes: the bizarre tale of finding pleasure during desperate times that is the Music from Big Pink outtake: “Yazoo Street Scandal.”

The Band outside the "Big Pink."

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Yazoo Street Scandal by The Band (lyrics by Robbie Robertson)

Stranded out in the night,
Eliza took me down
To see the widow give
Rain to the town.
It’s against the law
To be a tonic man,
But the widow knows
She’s got the upper hand.
So I went on in
Feelin’ kinda wheezy.
You know she soothed my mind, boys,
She rocked me kinda slow and easy
All day and all night.

Pick a card before you go
It’s a long trip to Mexico.

Eliza wait by the door,
I can’t stay here anymore, no, no.

Then she took a pill
She washed her feet in the mud
She said “Look out son,
You know, I just ordered a flood
For forty days and forty nights.”

Then I dropped my shoes,
Eliza called my name.
She said it looked to her
Like it’s gonna rain.
Then the cotton king
Came in chokin’
And the widow laughed and said:
“I ain’t jokin’.
Take once for all”
She said “Now don’t ya tease me.
I just fell in love, boy,
So rock me kinda slow and kinda easy,
All day and all night.”

Sweet William said
With a drunken head:
“If I had a boat,
I’d help y’all float.”
Eliza stood there watching,
William in a trance,
As the widow did the St. Vitus dance.
But just then an old man
With a boat named “Breezy”
Said: “You can ride with Clyde, boys,
If you rock it kinda slow and easy,
All day and all night.”

            Robbie Robertson—The Band’s guitarist, and principal author for this song—once stated that it was based on an actual Yazoo Street in a town in Helm’s home state of Arkansas: “I thought, ‘Wow, they don’t have streets like that in Canada. There’s no streets up there called Yazoo!’ It was like, ‘Jesus, let me make up a little story here about stuff going on in this kind of almost red light district.’ Everything was lit in red in that song for me.” Because the song was set in the South, Robertson decided that Levon Helm would be a more appropriate singer, employing his “best redneck-wildcat yelp” (Hoskyns, 1993).

Levon Helm in 1968. (Photograph: Elliott Landy/Redferns)

Yazoo Street Scandal” remains perhaps my favorite of Levon Helm sung tracks by The Band. Not because I believe it to be the “best” by any means, in terms of performance, sentiment, or composition, but simply because it’s so much damn fun to listen to. Fun being roughly 50% of what The Band’s music is about for me; the other percentage chiefly concerns empathy.

After The Band dissolved, Helm dabbled in acting, most notably playing Loretta Lynn’s father in the 1980 American biographical film Coal Miner’s Daughter. Later on in life Helm released the acclaimed solo albums Dirt Farmer and Electric Dirt, and hosted the “Midnight Ramble,” a regular concert series featuring numerous guest performers at his home studio in Woodstock, N.Y. This is something I’ve always intended to attend but never got around to justifying the time or the money for. Now I regret that.

But to bid an appropriate farewell for Levon Helm, I have chosen to conclude with The Band’s Martin Scorsese documented farewell concert of November of 1976, The Last Waltz.

The Last Waltz

At this show not only did they get to play alongside both their influences and those they influenced themselves, but they were reunited with their former mentors.

First, with Ronnie Hawkins,

Rick Danko and Ronnie Hawkins perform during the Last Waltz performance on Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1976, at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. — Image by © Neal Preston/CORBIS

and later with Bob Dylan, who had just completed the second leg of his  Rolling Thunder Revue tour at the end of that May.

Dylan backstage at The Last Waltz, 1976

One of the most gratifying moments of Dylan’s performance that evening was when The Band assisted him through an impassioned, yet immediate rendition of “Forever Young,” a song that they had all recorded together back in May of 1973 for Dylan’s Planet Waves. This sort of emotional transmission is what The Band could do best:

The Band and friends perform in The Last Waltz (left to right: Neil Diamond, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Rick Danko, Bob Dylan, Ronnie Hawkins, and Robbie Robertson); credit: Neal Preston/Corbis

However, always a personal highlight for me was to watch Levon, along with the rest of The Band, perform with The Staple Singers (being perhaps the most direct influence on The Band’s approach to vocals—the chain reaction of each voice coming in as a separate layer and playing its own unique part, as opposed to the popular method of multiple voices attempting to reach a harmonious and simultaneous neutral). So here it is:


——————————BOBBY CALERO


The Band and Martin Scorsese (1978) (Creators). Watanokuni (Poster) (2009, April 17).

The Band, The Weight [Video] Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sjCw3-YTffo

Bob Dylan, The Band, and Martin Scorsese (1978) (Creators). Mysyougetu (Poster)

(2011, Aug. 9). Forever Young [Video] Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EUKUMmM89IQ&feature=fvwrel

Dylan, B. (1965). Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window? [recorded by Bob Dylan]

On Biograph. [CD] Sony. (1997)

Dylan, B. (1967). Don’t Ya Tell Henry [recorded by Bob Dylan and The Band] On The

Basement Tapes. [CD] Columbia. (1975). Sony Legacy. (2009)

Dylan, B. (1965). I Wanna Be Your Lover [recorded by Bob Dylan] On Biograph. [CD]

Sony. (1997)

Hoskyns, B. (1993). Across The Great Divide: The Band and America. U.S.: Hal Leonard


James, J. (2008). Levon Helm. Rolling Stone,1066, p106. Retrieved April 24th, 2012

from Academic Search Complete

Magill, J. & Hawkins, R. (1959). Forty Days [recorded by Ronnie Hawkins and the

Hawks] On Ronnie Hawkins/Mr. Dynamo. [CD] Ais. (2011)

Marcus, G. (1975). The Basement Tapes (p. 6) [CD liner notes]. Columbia Records

Robertson, R. (1968). Yazoo Street Scandal [recorded by The Band] On Music From Big Pink [Extra tracks, Original recording reissued, Original recording remastered]  [CD] Capitol. (2000)

Schumacher, M. (1996). There But for Fortune: The Life of Phil Ochs. New York:


Spencer, S. (2000). Levon Helm’s Next Waltz. Rolling Stone, 839, p46. Retrieved April

24th, 2012 from Academic Search Complete

4 thoughts on “LEVON HELM: MAY 26, 1940—APRIL 19, 2012; R.I.P.

  1. nick

    Awesome post! That Jim James quote is dead on. Also, it’s worth checking out Levon Helm’s great cameo in the underappreciated action film Shooter.

  2. Rag Gar

    A fine tribute to one of the Greats…..
    I stil remember when The Band made the cover of Tme magazine….and how my band in
    far away Montevideo covered their great song The Weight ….
    Very good article….keep it up…

  3. Pingback: ALWAYS: “ABOVE MY GROUND” BY LANDLADY « A Mouthful of Pennies

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