Levon Helm, the lone American in The Band died on Thursday in Manhattan. He was 71 and lived in Woodstock, N.Y. Helm suffered with cancer for several years.
Mark Levon Helm was born on May 26, 1940, in Marvell, Ark., the son of a cotton farmer with land near Turkey Scratch, Ark.
Helms, a drummer, grew up in the Mississippee Delta listening to live bluegrass, Delta blues, country and the beginnings of rock ’n’ roll across the river from Memphis.
Helm was in 11th grade in 1957 when Arkansas-born country-rock singer Ronnie Hawkins hired him as a drummer. He traveled with Hawkins to Canada where Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks played six nights a week in Ontario. The group released a few singles on Roulette Records.
The Band’s songs were mostly written by The Band’s guitarist, Jaime Robbie Robertson, and pianist, Richard Manuel. The Band’s style evoked a bluesy combination of roadhouse, southern churchy, backwoods, river and other rural charms flavored with rock using visual and surreal lyrics.
Levon and the Hawks left to start their own bar-band career in 1963. Blues singer John Hammond Jr. heard them in Toronto and brought Mr. Robertson, Mr. Hudson and Mr. Helm into the studio in 1964 to back him on the album “So Many Roads.”
After the original Band dispersed in 1976, Helm continued to perform, often working with Band members and leading his own groups. Helms also acted, most notably in “Coal Miner’s Daughter.
Helms’ turned his barn in Woodstock, New York, into a recording studio in 1975. Starting in 2004, his barn became base to down-home concerts called “Midnight Rambles.” Those sessions launched tours and some Grammy-winning albums.
Helm’s drumming did not overpower songs, but rather blended with a heavy but reserved sound that served as the foundation for arrangements, especially when he played his tom toms.
The Band shifted vocals among several members but Helm's lyrics focused on myths and exaggerated stories of the American South with songs like, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "Up on Cripple Creek," "Ophelia" and "Rag Mama Rag." Fans experienced the South through Helms’ Arkansas twang that at once tweaked emotions, moved listeners between peaks of sadness, desperation and nostalgia and made them care about places they’d never visited.