Helm wasn’t exactly the leader, although it’s his voice on “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” the famous Civil War narrative that appears on 1969’s The Band. And while the others pitch in on Big Pink’s “The Weight,” it’s Helm’s mixture of unbowed arrogance and enormous good humor that comes through on that most celebrated of The Band’s songs. Helm came from the Delta region of the South, on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River near Helena — flat, rich blues world, where Helm would take Robertson to meet a dying Sonny Boy Williamson in 1965. Robertson and the rest were Canadian, and desired to get hot farther South with rock 'n’ roll, jazz, soul, blues and country music.
Coming of age in the great era of American musical integration — in his terse 1993 autobiography, This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band, Helm writes fondly of the medicine shows, country and blues he heard as a child — Helm absorbed some singular sounds. “Muddy Waters was extremely popular; he had the first real electric blues band and some hit records,” Helm writes. “We loved Lonzo and Oscar, Onie Wheeler, Homer and Jethro, Noble ‘Thin Man’ Watts, whoever we could get on the radio from Memphis, Shreveport or Nashville.” That’s a good cross-section of North American music, and Helm got to hear Rice Miller — also known as Sonny Boy Williamson — on local KFFA radio and in person, Miller’s blues being the very bedrock of the Helena-Memphis-Chicago style that would become rock’s blueprint.
If you know rock ‘n’ roll history, you probably know the story of how Helm became a teenage rocker with the help of Ronnie Hawkins, a bacchanalian showman of the old school. Eventually, Hawkins was able to put a down payment on a four-door Sedan de Ville and take Helm and a few other young musicians to Toronto. As Helm says in This Wheel’s on Fire, “We realized that down South we were just one of several good bands playing a rockabilly style that was already becoming dated. But in Canada we were unique and exotic, playing the most uninhibited, wildest rock and roll that hip Torontonians had ever heard.”
By 1960 Hawkins had brought guitarist Robertson aboard — that’s a teenage Robertson playing filthy blues licks in “Hey Boba Lu,” released under Hawkins’ name early that year. By the middle of the decade, the other members of what would become The Band had joined up, united in professionalism and itching to do something different.
Recording what would become the Basement Tapes with Bob Dylan in 1967, the group pushed Dylan’s music to new levels of allusiveness. Released in the summer of 1968, Music From Big Pink established The Band’s sound: organ and piano prodding and supporting Robertson’s amazingly dirty guitar leads, with a curiously energized, at-odds-with-itself quality to the ensemble playing. It remains a landmark album — I think it’s their best — and the success of Big Pink and 1969’s The Band marks a significant moment in cultural history, with Helm the key to the shift.
The Band’s first two records were among the first truly strenuous attempts to get back to the roots of rock 'n’ roll. Pause to remember that it was a scant four-and-a-half years between the rise of The Beatles in America in 1964 and the release of Music From Big Pink, and you may ask: What roots? Or, what do roots have to do with teenagers and rock 'n’ roll? The Band partially answered that question, perfecting a terse, post-gospel, part-R&B style that included elements of ‘60s pop, although they were no polished vocal group. Previously in the decade, rock and pop had been baroque, searching for new forms to contain song poetry that couldn’t be pinned down to verse-chorus-verse, and there had been a split between the shiny brilliance of The Beatles and the world of folk music — what we’d call today Americana or roots music.
With Levon at the helm, The Band was an adult rock group — for 1969 listeners, The Band represented a last gasp for a country unable to confront its own dark history, a refuge where all men can sing together, and an example of pure musical velocity and chops that looked down its hard-edged nose at British foppery and folkie earnestness. With Levon singing, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” made defeat sound noble, just as Americans like to believe it is, and his reading of “Up on Cripple Creek” made that humble location appear a more desirable destination than The Beatles’ Pepperland. After all the blues bands and half-assed psychedelic groups of the era, The Band was disciplined purists first and romantics second, and their music represents the waning of the classic era of ‘60s rock.
Still, reality is what Helm and The Band were always about as a concept — coming up the hard way and writing about life from the perspective of thoughtful, successful men who nonetheless sound enervated on such later albums as Stage Fright, Cahoots and Northern Lights, Southern Cross. The style is as incisive as ever, but the songs themselves are often unworthy of it — it’s the musical equivalent of the decline in film director Sam Peckinpah’s work, from The Wild Bunch to The Killer Elite, in the same period. As Helm bitterly points out in This Wheel’s on Fire, Robertson became the group’s de facto leader. After Northern Lights and The Last Waltz, the group splintered, with Manuel committing suicide in 1986 and Danko dying in 1999.
A full-throated singer and a drummer who specialized in big, fat shuffles and the kind of effortless swing he probably learned from listening to Sonny Boy Williamson’s Chess recordings of the late ‘50s, Helm became an icon of quality in his later life. He deserved the designation, with some relaxed turns as a film actor and several solo records to his credit. The 2010 full-length Electric Dirt is an honorable effort, and his Midnight Rambles became famous live events in later years, with a particularly memorable 2008 show at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium that, like Helm, will remain an emblem of Americana.
Helm’s death yesterday in New York deprives us of the man himself, but the influence of The Band and Helm’s musical style has been pervasive for decades — Little Feat’s first album is a dead ringer for Big Pink, and the English group Brinsley Schwarz were notable acolytes on such ‘70s albums as Silver Pistol and Nervous on the Road. Their influence is indirectly felt in the work of Elvis Costello and the Attractions and Los Lobos. Really, anyone who has wanted to go back to his or her roots, start over and tighten up — and that includes virtually everyone in Americana at this moment — owes something to Levon Helm and company. They did it first, and that counts.