in memoriam: Levon Helm

By Jim Stanford on April 20, 2012

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Levon Helm raps the skins with help from Galactic drummer Stanton Moore.

Back in 2010, I wrote about the anticipation of seeing Levon Helm perform at Jazz Fest. I had just watched The Last Waltz for the first time.

Helm and his band gave a set at the New Orleans Fairgrounds that was practically a mini-Last Waltz, with guest after guest coming out on stage to lend support and play with the revered drummer and mandolinist. Pianists Dr. John and Allen Toussaint, participants in the original farewell concert by The Band, were among the cast, along with Galactic drummer Stanton Moore, who pounded the skins alongside Helm for nearly the entire set.

Then 69, the gravelly voiced Arkansan had been battling throat cancer and looked frail, but his spirit was inextinguishable. His smile shone from behind the drum kit, and he played with an intensity that belied his condition.

“Oh, you don’t know the shape I’m in!” he bellowed to start the set. The Band classic was fitting on many levels, not only given his health, as the grin on his face suggested, but, this being a Sunday after a long weekend in New Orleans, for the audience as well.

For those of us who discovered the music nearly a generation after The Band’s heyday, The Last Waltz serves as a lesson in rock history. I don’t know that there’s ever been another musician who can sing and play drums the way Helm does during the documentary, so soulful and powerful.

Via David Swift, here’s how Charles Pierce, in an excellent piece for Esquire, described what he found a quintessentially American sound:

This was healing music, but it was in no way peaceful. Levon’s voice made sure of that. It was tough and sound and brooked no easy answers. … It was a Southern voice, certainly, but there was in it that universal sense that we are all in this great experiment together, that we hold a number of truths to be self-evident and the ones that Mr. Jefferson listed were only the very beginning of them.

That Helm was stricken with throat cancer wasn’t a total surprise, given that he and bandmate Robbie Robertson smoke a plantation’s worth of tobacco during the film. Right up to his final days, he refused to give up the fight.

Over the years “The Weight” became a universal hymn. This clip (featuring cameos from a few Jackson Hole expats) was filmed on a Sunday, and Levon took us to church.

(Photo via Galactic)

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Posted under Deaths, Music, Religion

2 Comments so far

  1. js April 24, 2012 12:56 pm

    Over the weekend a friend pointed out that Levon’s daughter, Amy, spent at least a summer in Jackson Hole in the 1990s, possibly at Teton Valley Ranch Camp. She is a singer and musician and had been a part of Levon’s band.

  2. A April 24, 2012 2:46 pm

    Very nice story, now how about some news relevant to the valley, this is JHunderground right? Do some digging and tell us about the DCI investigation rumored to be going on at curran Seeley

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