The death of Levon Helm has stilled the last of the great singers of The Band.
Yes, Robbie Robertson did vocals–thankfully, he still does–and The Band (Helm, Robertson, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel) was very much a team effort, at least for the first two albums, “Music From Big Pink” and “The Band.” Of course, Robertson held the bulk of the songwriting credits. Yet to me it was the voices of Helm, Danko (who died in 1999) and Manuel (who committed suicide in 1986) that gave The Band’s music a sound that was as old as America and as new as the Space Age.
In 1976 in the performance immortalized in “The Last Waltz,” the best concert movie ever made, the singers were shamans channeling 19th-century spirits on such songs as “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Ophelia” and “It Makes No Difference.” But this was no roots act. As Jon Pareles puts it in his New York Times obituary of Helm, the songs “are rock-ribbed with history and tradition yet hauntingly surreal.”
Maybe it’s the Southerner in me, but Helm–born in Arkansas and the only American in the group–provided a channel to something mythic and eternal, and something very American. The result was music that had both respect for musical elders and ancestors and a joyous, in-your-face rock and roll energy. This was music that hadn’t been heard before.
Over the past decade, fighting throat cancer, Helm recorded fine studio and live albums of rootsy Americana music and won Grammies for his efforts. He conducted “Midnight Rambles” with other musicians at his home in Woodstock, NY. The PBS NewsHour interviewed him in 2009.
He was also a damn fine actor, who played some thoroughly American roles, including Loretta Lynn’s father in “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” My favorite Levon Helm performance, though, is in “The Right Stuff,” in which he plays Jack Ridley, an Air Force sidekick of Chuck Yeager, played by Sam Shepard.
There’s a scene near the end of the film when Ridley and another airman are desperately searching in the California desert for Yeager, who has bailed out of a malfunctioning jet. Through the shimmering waves of heat we see Yeager, badly burned but walking boldly through the desert, just a great American doing his job.
“Sir, is that a man?” Ridley is asked. “You damn right it is!” he answers.
You could say the same of Levon Helm–a great American doing his job.