A Tribute to Levon Helm
I was sad to hear on the radio this afternoon that Levon Helm’s wife and daughter announced that he is in the final stages of his battle with cancer and has canceled all tour dates for 2012. Below is my tribute to him. If you already know and love Levon Helm, then this is for you. If you’re never heard of him, read on a little and discover a great artist.
My first acquaintance with Levon Helm came late; probably about three years ago. I don’t remember where I first heard his music, but once I did, I was immediately hooked. Levon is a multi-instrumentalist, but primarily a drummer and a singer, and boy can he do both. Soon after hearing Levon’s drumming he catapulted himself into my top 5 favorite drummers. First, a bit of history for those unacquainted.
Levon was born in tiny town in eastern Arkansas 71 years ago, and came to fame primarily with the group The Band in the 1960’s and 70’s. There he played drums and often sang lead vocals on hits such as Up On Cripple Creek, Ophelia, and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. In the 1980’s and 90’s he did a wide variety of things, such as continuing work with The Band, touring with Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band. In the past five years, he has put out three solo albums, all of them winning Grammy’s.
Now, reasons why I love the music of Levon Helm. To put it simply, Helm is an under appreciated jewel of American music. He is Roots music embodied. He plays with more raw joy and emotion than almost anyone and his persona comes across crystal clear in his music. What is more, Helm is an absolute master of the groove. It is harder to find a drummer who has a more consistently deep pocket than Levon Helm.
I remember hearing stories about how jazz legend Jack DeJohnette used to drive out to Helm’s house in Woodstock, NY to play drums with him. I bet than Helm has about 1/10th of the technical facility of Jack DeJohnette and yet Helm has something you just can’t touch. In our day, music is quickly becoming overrun by young technicians who spend countless hours developing amazing technical facility on their instruments. But you can’t really learn what Levon Helm has. When one listens to his music, one immediately gets the sense that unless you had lived his life right alongside him, and had all the same experiences, you could never emulate his playing.
The drumming and singing of Levon Helm exudes his personality, and you never doubt that he means what he says and plays. His consistently greasy groove is unmatched, and, indeed, one should not try to match it. One great lesson I take away from Levon Helm is to simply be yourself, in music and elsewhere. I have spent a lot of time trying to emulate Helm’s drumming and have for the most part just sounded like a terrible imitation. It took me a long time to realize that rather than trying to be someone else, the music of Levon helm shouts that you should simply be yourself. No need to put on a false face to the world. Just do your thing and do it with all your heart.
Levon Helm is the main reason I bought an old and massive 26″ bass drum. Though he never played large drums, his drumming always sounded huge, and I hoped that if I could play huge drums maybe a bit of the magic would rub off.
To wind things up, that is why I love Levon Helm. Now I suggest that you treat yourself and check out the two youtube videos posted below. You won’t regret it.