Levon Helm

by Bob Schwartz

Garth Hudson, Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, and Rick Danko

Levon Helm is dead at the age of 71.

The Band was one of the greatest American musical groups of its era. Great as in musically few better, American as in of and about America, which is strange because all but one of the members was Canadian. That was Levon Helm.

Levon was from Arkansas, son of a cotton farmer. Along with Ronnie Hawkins, he was an original member of The Hawks, which evolved into The Band with the addition of Canadians Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson. As much as the influences came from every which where, as much astonishing musicianship and creativity as each member constantly demonstrated, this was an American band, an Arkansas band.

That was the key to The Band’s second album, The Band (1969). If The Band, the group, is unlike any other, The Band, the album, is even more unlike. At a time when synthesizing genres and styles was becoming normal, The Band stood out, and still does. These are songs about some sort of 19th century American South, played as if The Band had brought all their electric instruments and modern sensibilities back and forth in a time machine. Impossible to classify because it was created by Canadian rockers reborn in Arkansas, except for the one member who was actually born there the first time. That was Levon Helm.

No Levon, no Band. It’s that simple.

The night they drove old Dixie down
And the bells were ringing
The night they drove old Dixie down
And all the people were singing
They went na na na…