Levon Helm: The Voice of America

MAY 26, 1940 - APRIL 19, 2012

By Ross Altman

Levon_HelmFour Canadians managed to do the unimaginable: write songs that seemed to come out of the heart of America—from Civil War ballads to Biblical parables to moonshine romances—the soundtrack of the most iconic road movie of the late 1960s, and all created by strangers to this strange land. They were four-fifths of The Band—Robbie Robertson, the songwriter of record, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson—originally The Hawks, who became Bob Dylan’s backup band from Woodstock, who squirreled away with him during his recovery from his motorcycle accident of 1967, in what became known as “The House at Big Pink.”

But they needed a lead singer to pull off the greatest ruse of 1960s folk rock music, to convince the audience that they were singing authentic American songs—from the Ozarks no less—distilled with a rhapsodic sensibility that wedded Dylan’s surrealism to bedrock Americana.

That lead singer—the voice of America—was Arkansas born-and-bred Levon Helm, who died this week of laryngeal cancer at the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Institute in New York. His was the voice that defined the songs The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, The Weight, Up On Cripple Creek, and a dozen others, all the while he was playing drums. It’s Levon Helm who was “just crying out that he was framed,” in Bob Dylan’s I Shall Be Released. And it was Levon Helm who wagered his singing voice against his life. By opting for radiation therapy against the surgical removal of his larynx, he chose the treatment that saved his voice and probably cost him his life. So identified was he with that voice that life itself was less important. In the 1970s his voice defined an era.

Try to imagine Easy Rider’s definitive scene—the motorcycle ride across the rural countryside with Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper—without Levon Helm’s lead vocal on The Weight:

The Weight - 1969 @ Woodstock

I pulled into Nazareth

Was feelin’ ‘bout half past dead

Just lookin’ for a place where I can lay my head

Hey mister can you tell me

Where a man can find a bed

He just grinned and shook my hand

And ‘no’ was all he said—Take a load off Fanny

Take a load for free

Take a load off Fanny

/And, and, and, You put the load right on me.

Try to imagine Virgil Cane as anyone other than Levon Helm, or the narrator of Up On Cripple Creek, or the father of The Coal Miner’s Daughter, Loretta Lynn. Once he took on a role, he owned it.

Levon Helm, dead at 71, was the Voice of America—as sure as Edward R. Murrow in 1967. And yet what defined his greatness was equally the records he made in the last ten years of his life, when he won three Grammys for solo albums, Dirt Farmer, Electric Dirt and Ramble at the Ryman, some of them after his cancer diagnosis. Playing against the clock he brought his Ozark tenacity to his Woodstock imagination and became the Band’s elder statesman of roots rock.

His midnight rambles of fellow musicians he invited to his home in Woodstock, for informal late night sessions may have been his most characteristic musical venture—taking music back from the stage and into the living room where it started, and where he could hear the raw, unstrained sounds of his Ozark childhood, the same ones that filtered down the mountain and into the ears of a young boy who grew up to take a rebel’s stand.

Ross Altman has a Ph.D. in English. Before becoming a full-time folk singer he taught college English and Speech. He now sings around California for libraries, unions, schools, political groups and folk festivals. You can reach Ross at Greygoosemusic@aol.com