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Born in 1940, Levon Helm showed an early gift on the drums. Growing up on a cotton farm, music became his way out of a hard-labor life. (Allison Murphy)

Levon Helm’s Rocking Rambles

The '60s rock great died today. Last July, our writer visited Helm for one of his famous Saturday night music throwdowns

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Editor's Note: Levon Helm died on Thursday, April 19, 2012 in New York City after losing his battle with cancer. He was 71 years old and best known as the drummer of the legendary rock group the Band. We examined Helm's extraordinary career and legacy in July 2011.

Deep in the Catskill woods the church of groove has blessed this Saturday night.

Beneath vaulted ceilings the horns blow, the women sing, the piano keys move the hammers and the drummer shakes his shoulders with the downbeat.

A guest unrecognizable in denim, bandanas and sunglasses is introduced as Conan O’Brien’s bandleader, Jimmy Vivino. He addresses the assembled crowd of 200.

“I got my musical education in this church Levon built here,” Vivino tells the crowd. “There’s something magical going on in this barn.”

With that, the Levon Helm Band kicks into the classic “Deep Ellum Blues,” about the perils of Dallas’ red-light district some 80 years ago.

The church – the barn—is the home recording studio-slash-living room of Levon Helm, an influential 1960s rock pioneer who still tours and records; his “Electric Dirt” won a 2009 Grammy. But one of his most lasting contributions to the American musical canon may just be the Saturday night musical throwdowns called the Midnight Rambles. Here in Woodstock, New York, a veteran house band welcomes neighbors, like Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen, and younger musicians, like Shawn Mullins and Steve Earle, who share Helm’s passion for song.

The sets roam over early blues, ’60s standards and recent recordings, reimagined by a 12-piece band that includes a five-man horn section, and a small music store’s worth of banjos, mandolins, a fiddle, a stand-up bass, a piano, guitars and the drums that make Helm famous.

The Rambles began in 2004 as moneymaker for Helm, who declared bankruptcy after the double blows of a house fire and cancer. The inspiration came from the traveling medicine shows of his Arkansas youth, and the musicians who played looser and talked dirtier as the night reached toward dawn.

Tickets cost $150 and go fast.

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