Generally speaking, I shy away from writing obituaries because I do not like the way they flatten the achievements of the deceased and synthesize their very real humanity into something easily digested. Occasionally, though, the death of someone great warrants my feeble, insufficient attempt at an obituary. Levon Helm is one of those people.
Helm is best-known as the drummer and vocalist of The Band. He was born in Marvell, Arkansas in 1940 to cotton farmer parents. At six years old, Levon saw Bill Monroe and his Blues Grass Boys perform and instantly knew he wanted to become a musician. He began playing guitar and drums at the age of eight and by the age of seventeen, he was playing bars, clubs and dance halls across Arkansas. After one performance, Ronnie Hawkins asked Levon to join his band, The Hawks.
Levon Helm and the rest of the Hawks soon left Hawkins to form their own group, which they named simply The Band. The Band released a number of outstanding records throughout the 1960s and 1970s, including the absolutely essential Music from Big Pink and The Band. The Band’s members regularly switched vocal duties and instrumental parts but even among a group of remarkably talented musicians, Helm was a standout. His voice had a Southern soulfulness and earnest Tupelo tone that the other members could only aspire to possess. Moreover, Helm’s generation had an abundance of talented drummers, including many that exceeded his technical skills, but he was one of a kind. His drumming style was not flashy but it served the song with humility, self-assurance and idiosyncrasy. Outside of The Band, Helm had a successful solo career, played on countless albums by other artists and worked as an occasional actor.
The world is lacking without Levon Helm in it.
From The Last Waltz:
“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”