Levon Helm, 1940-2012

posted by Tom on April 20, 2012 at 6:32 pm
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The loss of Levon Helm, who died on April 19 after a battle with throat cancer, represents the end of a few long heritage lines in American music.

Helm was one of those rare American singers, almost all of them gone now, whose voice conveyed and embodied the hardships borne by previous generations. It wasn’t just the inviting roughness in his tone – you can tell, instantly, that his singing came from a particular place and stood for a constellation of values. It carried deep knowledge of work and the sound of toil, and also the tired pride that comes with a job well done. Like Ralph Stanley (another conduit to a fast-disappearing era in music), Helm was a plain and humble singer – there are no fancy curlicues or embellishments in his best performances. Instead there are cracks and jagged edges, imperfections that become integral to the tales, part of the “romance” he laced into simple tunes that tell about the challenges of maintaining grace under duress.

That's not the only "end of the line" element at work here. Helm was also a master of the “revue” – most famously as an architect of the Band, with its strangely haunted sense of folklore and unusual revolving-door group chemistry. But he didn’t give up on revue-style entertainment when the Band disbanded in 1976 – in fact, his next project, the RCO Allstars, was in some ways an even more elaborate endeavor. This group, heard best on a live performance from New Year’s Eve in 1977, included Dr. John (still another survivor with a time-traveling voice), legendary Stax guitarist Steve Cropper, and Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass and blues harmonica master Paul Butterfield. Though the group was short-lived, the chemistry on display throughout this live record is flat-out ferocious: Here, in a whirlwind set, is a rollicking tour of American roots that suggests an appreciation for rhythmic nuance and a sense of swing that few ensembles in the history of American music have ever attained. This is directly the result of Helm’s instincts as a leader: Over and over, he assembled sensitive and stylistically diverse musicians into roaring, world-changing bands. Want proof? Check “Milk Cow Boogie” on this playlist.

Helm continued to be a revue-maker throughout his post-Band career – with the ad-hoc Midnight Rambles he organized in upstate New York as well as his remarkably strong Dirt Farmer and Electric Dirt solo projects. The appreciations of his work rightly focus on the Band and its many contributions; here’s hoping that when future generations look back on the work of Levon Helm, they’ll spend a minute on the solo output, too.

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#1 from Scott Peterson, United States - 04/23/2012 6:13

This was absolutely beautiful. I’ve been listening to The Band almost non-stop for the past several days. Three amazing voices, all now gone. Such a loss.

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