The Right Stuff

A few weeks after seeing a wonderful tribute to The Last Waltz, I was saddened to hear of original drummer Levon Helm‘s passing on Thursday. Helm shared vocal duties with the other members of the band and was best known for The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and, one of my favourites, Up On Cripple Creek. He was born in Arkansas in 1940 and went on to become a member of The Hawks, fronted by fellow Arkansan Ronnie Hawkins. They eventually settled in Toronto where Levon would end up as the only American amongst a group of Canadians. They then became Bob Dylan’s backing band and decided to just call themselves The Band. At the end of the sixties they released two albums that are amongst my favourites from that decade, though they sound more like the 1860s than the 1960s. As well as sharing vocal duties, the group also swapped instruments and Levon often came out from behind the drum kit to pick up a guitar, bass or mandolin. His singing and playing in Martin Scorsese’s film of The Last Waltz farewell concert is quite prominent and his chats with Marty in the film are also worth checking out

Helm released a few solo records before The Band got back together again in 1983 and made the first of many film appearances when he played Loretta Lynn’s father in Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980). He released his first solo studio album in nearly thirty years in 2007 and it won the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album the following year. Dirt Farmer was followed by Electric Dirt in 2009 and it became the first winner of the Grammy for Best Americana Album in 2010. At the end of last year, he was one of the artists chosen to sing on The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams. Levon’s lonesome voice is perfect for this typical piece of lovesick blues from one of country music’s pioneers. He also paid tribute to other southern styles of music on his final studio album, Electric Dirt (2009). I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free was originally written and performed by jazz musician Billy Taylor before being popularised by Nina Simone and Helm does her version justice here. There are strong echoes of Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come on his version of The Mountain by Steve Earle on Dirt Farmer. Finally, his voice sounds even better than Dylan’s on a live version of a track that appeared on Bob’s first completely electric album, Highway 61 Revisited from 1965. Fittingly, Dylan was one of numerous musicians who paid tribute to his former colleague and friend over the last few days. I’ll leave you with this statement that he released on his website:

He was my bosom buddy friend to the end, one of the last true great spirits of my or any other generation. 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

You’ll Never Again Be Mine (Hank Williams cover) – Levon Helm

I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free (Billy Taylor cover) – Levon Helm

The Mountain (Steve Earle cover) – Levon Helm

It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry (Bob Dylan cover) – Levon Helm


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