by Emma Bell
Levon Helm, who died on April 19th, 2012, was one of the most authentic voices in American music. Possessed of a voice as 'down home' as cornbread and grits, Levon was a native of Arkansas who played music from an early age, winning talent shows and impressing with his ability as a multi -instrumentalist.
After working steadily in Canada and New York, he found himself rocketed to fame as the drummer and singer in The Band, backing Bob Dylan on the fabled album' The Basement Tapes'. After that, The Band lived together in a large, pink house in upstate New York and, in 1968, created their debut album, 'Music from Big Pink'. Their music melded soul, country, r&b, gospel and impeccable harmonic singing. This was indeed sensational and innovative. Bands and artists as diverse as Led Zeppelin, Fairport Convention, Elton John and Eric Clapton felt its influence.
"In 1968 . . . the country was coming apart at the seams. Nothing was holding, least of all Mr. Yeats's center. There were tanks in Prague and there was blood on a balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. The traditional American values of home and family and neighborhood were being fashioned into cheap weapons to use against the people who saw the death and gore as the deepest kind of betrayal of the ideals that made those values worth a damn in the first place . . . Then, Capitol released 'Music from Big Pink'. It didn't sound like anything on the radio. It didn't sound like anything on earth . . . It was a summoning of the idea of the American community, which has never been about conformity, either to fashion or to the politics of the moment . . . (it) made you realize that there was an America worth the effort of finding, that there was a country to which it was worth coming home . . ." 'Levon Helm: The Real Voice of America' by Charles P. Pierce
The Band played their farewell concert in 1976 and were immortalised doing so in Martin Scorsese's documentary film, 'The Last Waltz' (see video above).
Helm continued as a solo artist and garnered much critical success doing so, while also finding time for film appearances. He was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1998, but, determined to keep recording, made further albums, including the excellent 'Dirt Farmer' - a mysterious and haunting set of folk, gospel and bluegrass tunes which earned him a Grammy (see below). His passing is rightly mourned.
Read a homage to gospel legend, Sister Rosetta Tharpe: