Sadly, Levon Helm – the drummer for the Band – died this afternoon at age 71. A terrible day for music fans everywhere, indeed. But let’s stop to appreciate Helm's great influence on American music.
The Band was the quintessential American band, collecting, integrating, and reimagining just about every musical tradition of the 20th century. Rock, jazz, blues, R&B, country – it's all in their first two albums, Music From Big Pink and The Band.
What is so amazing is that four out of the five members of the Band – Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, and Garth Hudson – were not actually Americans. They are all from Canada. It was only Helm who was the American, born and bred in rural Arkansas.
And so, while Helm was not the principal songwriter for the group, he was its spiritual core. It is just unimaginable that the Band minus Helm could have created such classics as “Up On Cripple Creek,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “W.S. Walcott Medicine Show” or “Ophelia.”
The Band had very fast burn rate – releasing only six original albums between 1968 and their effective breakup in 1977. Big Pink and The Band are true classics, but the rest fall short to varying degrees. In the pantheon of rock ‘n’ roll, the Band does not quite rank up there with the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Kinks or Bob Dylan. But none of those acts ever exceeded the beauty and grace of Big Pink or the rollicking good time of The Band.
Levon and the rest of the Band would struggle to find their footing after the breakup. Robertson found work with Martin Scorsese in Hollywood, while the remaining members would re-commission the Band as a kind of oldies act in the mid-80s, and release three mediocre albums under their original moniker in the mid-1990s before Danko passed in 1999.
Happily, Helm did find great success in the final stage of his career, doing what Dylan, Robert Plant, and the Rolling Stones have all done: He went back to his roots to celebrate the music he grew up on. Helm’s Dirt Farmer and Electric Dirt are great accomplishments, easily ranking up there with Plant’s Band of Joy and Dylan’s Modern Times.
In honor of this great musician, let’s play him off the stage with what is arguably the best performance of the Band’s best song. A fitting tribute to a true American original:
NOTE: This post has been updated.