Feature

Levon Helm, 1940–2012

The Band’s purveyor of Southern grit

Levon Helm found fame in a roots rock group that boasted three powerful singers. But his gritty Southern tenor was always The Band’s main attraction. It was the sound of the defeated Confederate soldier on “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and the road-weary traveler on “The Weight.” 

Growing up in Elaine, Ark., Helm witnessed rock’s early days firsthand. He saw Elvis Presley perform before he was famous and was inspired to take up the drums after watching Jerry Lee Lewis’s drummer, said the Associated Press. At age 17, he hit the road with rockabilly star Ronnie Hawkins and was soon joined by the four Canadian musicians who would become The Band. The group split from Hawkins in 1963, renamed themselves Levon and the Hawks, and two years later were hired to accompany Bob Dylan on a U.S. and European tour, said The Guardian (U.K.). Dylan’s new rock sound angered his folk fans, and Helm was so disturbed by the booing crowds “that he quit and returned to Arkansas.”

The Hawks reunited in 1967 and changed their name to The Band—because, as Helm explained, that’s what everyone called Dylan’s backing musicians. Their songs reconnected rock with its roots in country, blues, and folk, and their debut album, Music From Big Pink, became a quiet sensation. The Band broke up in 1976, but Helm continued recording, winning three Grammys for his solo work, including one for the 2009 album Electric Dirt—the first to be awarded in the newly created Americana category. “Wholly appropriate,” said USA Today, “since Helm was first and foremost a man who swore by the mud below his feet.”

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