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

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)

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“Amen,” Helm says.
“You just plug in,” Hansard says.
“Amen,” Helm says.
“And that’s what it’s all about,” Hansard says.

Gathered around Helm’s kitchen table just after midnight are Fagen, Helm’s bandleader Larry Campbell (who’s toured with Bob Dylan) and Hayes Carll, 35, an Austin-based up-and-comer whose songs appeared in the recent Gwyneth Paltrow movie, Country Strong. Chinese takeout litters the stove as Helm’s dogs wrestle over treats by the door. Hansard takes a bench.

Helm recalls one of his first musical memories. Under a segregated tent in Depression-era Arkansas, “Diamond Tooth” Mary McClain, a train-hopping circus performer with dental-work jewels, belted “Shake a Hand.”

“They’d put up a big tent and park a couple of those big tractor-trailer beds together for the stage, put a tarpaulin down, put the piano and the musicians there,” Helm says.

“Did a lot of white people go?” Fagen asks.

“Oh yeah. Down in the middle was the aisle. And the people on one side were dark to almost dark, and the people on the other side were red-haired to blond,” Helm says.

Born Mark Lavon Helm in May 1940, Helm grew up a cotton farm. Music became a way out of a hard-labor life. He showed an early gift on the drums, and as a teen toured Canada with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, a precursor to the Band. Helm’s work with that ’60s roots-rock super group meshed honky-tonk, folk, blues and rock. The Band backed Bob Dylan when he went electric and appeared in The Last Waltz, the Martin Scorsese documentary that captured the group’s farewell performance. It’s considered by many to be the greatest concert film of all time.

“Good songs are good forever,” Helm says after the ramble. “They don’t get old. And a lot of the younger people they haven’t heard these good all songs, so we like to pull one or two out of the hat and pass them on.”

“We played ‘Hesitation Blues’ tonight, that was one of the good ones. ‘Bourgeoisie Blues.’ Anything that touches the musical nerve.”

Bluesman Lead Belly penned “The Bourgeoisie Blues” in 1935 in response to Washington, D.C. establishments that wouldn’t let the singer’s mixed-race group dine. Also on the set-list: the Grateful Dead’s “Shakedown Street” and slow-burning “Attics of My Life,” and Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” written and first recorded in Woodstock with Helm’s Band bandmates (and performed in later years with Campbell backing Dylan).


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