(revised and updated February, 2021)
“Daniel, Daniel and the sacred harp, dancin’ through the clover.” Levon Helm sang it so well. Daniel carrying the harp from the Sea of Galilee. I wonder if Levon dancing in the clover today, playing the drums and singing like he did so many times before, causing us to dance or stomp our feet.
Levon Helm died this earlier this year, April 19th, 2012. He is missed.
For Levon Helm the Band members were his dancing partners.
Levon Helm and his Music
Levon sang that he deserved Daniel’s sacred harp, because they were related. I have not idea what the relation was in Levon’s mind. He was the second of four children born to Nell and Diamond Helm in Elaine, Arkansas. Diamond was a cotton farmer who occasionally entertained the locals as a musician. The Helm family loved music and often sang together. They listened to The Grand Ole Opry and Sonny Boy Williamson and His King Biscuit Entertainers regularly on the radio.
Leon started as a guitar player in his youth, but hearing how the introduction of drums enriched Elvis Presley’s performances, he picked up the sticks himself.
He called his drummer’s stool “the best seat in the house,” because he can see his fellow musicians and his audience simultaneously.
He began his career in earnest playing with The Hawks. He was the only American in the group of Canadians. The Hawks gained their notoriety playing for Bob Dylan. (Unreal how many artists Dylan helped with his lyrics or his voice) Due to this backup role, the Hawks became known as The Band. Some of their best music with Dylan were the albums Planet Waves and The Last Waltz, both non-Capitol releases. Their own most famous album was Music from Big Pink.
The Last Waltz
On Thanksgiving day 1976, with Levon Helm The Band preformed its farewell concert at Winterland in San Francisco. They called the concert The Last Waltz. Guest appearances by Ronnie Hawkins (the originator of the Hawks), Dr. John, Muddy Waters, Ringo Starr, Joni Mitchell, Neil Diamond, Paul Butterfield, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and Eric Clapton made the concert one of the all time best rock and roll concerts. It was filmed and has ranked near the top of all rockumentaries.
Kick back and enjoy the Last Waltz concert, over four hours of fantastic jamin’.
Helm recorded solo albums in 1980 and 1982 entitled American Son and (once again) Levon Helm, but for me, Helm’s greatest moment with The Band is their cover of Bob Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece” from Cahoots (1971). You can hear it by clicking on the Youtube video below.
Levon died after an extended battle with cancer. He recovered enough at one point to produce an album which he talks about on Eye to Eye with Katie Couric.
As a tribute to Levon, help someone with their load today, just as he sang in “The Weight” or “take a load of Fannie.” Just maybe you can help him paint his masterpiece.
Leon Helm and Bob Dylan
Helm remembers his first introduction to Bob Dylan.
“We had never heard of Bob Dylan, but he had heard of us. He said, ‘You wanna play Hollywood Bowl?’ So we asked him who else was gonna be on the show. ‘Just us,’ he said.”
Bob Dylan remembered Levon Helm with these words to Rolling Stone.
“He was my bosom buddy friend to the end, one of the last true great spirits of my or any other generation,” Dylan wrote. “This is just so sad to talk about. I still can remember the first day I met him and the last day I saw him. We go back pretty far and had been through some trials together. I’m going to miss him, as I’m sure a whole lot of others will too.”