Keep It Goin’: Levon Helm’s Midnight Rambles
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story originally appeared in the Summer 2016/Homegrown edition of No Depression‘s quarterly journal, which is now sold out. Subscribe to No Depression today and never miss another issue.
Rambling at midnight goes back many centuries and encompasses, to put it mildly, a variety of entertainments. The figure of a musician is often involved: the traveling troubadour, instrument slung over his back (almost always, the rambler was a man), rambling the dusty roads from gig to gig, town to town. By the late 17th century, you could ramble in cities as well as towns. To be a midnight rambler had a sexy, dirty connotation: one went out walking after midnight looking for love, or something like it.
John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, made crystal clear sometime after 1661 what a “ramble” was all about in his infamous nocturnal saga, “A Ramble in St. James Park,” which begins:
Much wine had passed, with grave discourse
Of who fucks who, and who does worse
The Rolling Stones, co-opting the name for their violence-laced 1969 hit “Midnight Rambler,” insisted that “it’s no rock and roll show.” However, this is just what a midnight ramble is and has always been — and the Stones’ own hard-riding rock song bears it out, despite the denial: A midnight ramble is the post-show show, the gig that happens after midnight, when the children have gone to bed and things spice up and get loose.
Just before the First World War, a carnival operator named Fred Swift Wolcott bought a touring variety and music show called, alternately, the Rabbit’s Foot Company and the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, from the widow of its founder. Wolcott was a white man, but the company had nearly 70 African-American performers. He added his initials and name to the show, and sent his revue through the South. As it passed through Arkansas, a boy named Levon Helm caught the show, which gave him many fond memories. Years later, Helm transmuted those memories into his song, “The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show.”
The cast of characters in The Band’s 1970 song includes saints, sinners, losers, and winners — “all kinds of people you might want to know” (note, please, that qualifying might). “There’s a young faith healer / he’s a woman stealer.” There’s Miss Brer Foxhole, with “bright diamonds in her teeth,” who is “pure gold down underneath.” And there’s the all-American mashup musicians masquerading under the name of “the Klondike Klu Klux Steamboat Band.” A late night out at the show is just the thing for you if “your arms are empty” and you’ve “got nowhere to go.”
But the most important words in the song were “medicine show.” This is, after all, music with more than a message. It’s double-edged, curing what ails you while slipping something into your entertainment, like the miracle-cure medicine shows of the Wild West in the hands of dubious “snake-oil” salesmen touting magical cure-alls. No matter what you thought you bought, you always felt better in the end.
‘You Really Should Get Up Here’
At a benefit for guitarist Hubert Sumlin at BB King’s in New York in 2003, it was a delightful surprise to see Levon Helm settle in behind the drums. Sumlin had recently undergone surgery for lung cancer, and Helm had been contending with the throat cancer he wound up battling for more than a decade. Helm would spend many of those days sitting on stage at his drums or his mandolin, singing when he could; smiling that smile when he could not. During this “Howlin’ for Hubert” benefit performance, Helm did not sing, but his drumbeat was as unmistakable and unique as his voice was. He laid down the perfect heartbeat for every song, from the slow, yowling, stripteasy blues to the rockers.
At the end, he stood and cupped his hands. He mouthed, “Yeah, Hubert,” at his friend, who turned his back to the cheering crowd and, holding event organizer David Johansen’s arm, beamed at Helm. I went home full of love for Hubert and for Howlin’ Wolf, but what I put on the record player was “Stage Fright.” I wanted to hear Levon sing.
In the summer of 2004, I looked forward to that chance again. Helm had begun to invite friends to make music with him at his house in the woods in Woodstock, New York, on a pond folks now refer to as Lake Levon.
Erik Lawrence played countless Rambles, as the gatherings came to be called, from their ragged beginnings to the very last. “I knew Levon had cancer, and he was doing some pickup blues gigs. I was living in Vermont, and up until then I’d said yes to what paid, and no to things I wanted to do. Finally I had a little money in the bank, and I called Butch [Dener, longtime road manager for The Band] and said to him, ‘Just know anytime Levon’s doing a gig, I’ll show up and play for free.” And I did.
“Then, one day, Butch called and said, ‘You really should get up here!’ That was my first Ramble. The band was mostly members of Ollabelle, and Jimmy Vivino. Later on, Levon asked me to ‘bring a horn’ and I invited Steven Bernstein on trumpet because we played well together off the cuff. When Steven couldn’t do it, I’d hire Clark Gayton on trombone because he was such a good musician.”
Ollabelle’s principal singer was Levon’s daughter, Amy Helm. As time went on, she and bassist/composer Byron Isaacs became integral members of the Ramble band. Drummer Tony Leone sat in on drums, as would Amy, occasionally, whenever Levon slid onto the stool at center stage to pick his mandolin.
My first attempt at a Ramble failed. Late on a Saturday afternoon, quite literally as I was leaving my driveway, an older lady in a very large Buick drove into the passenger door of my car, leaving it undrivable. Frantic calls to friends with extra cars got me nothing. I phoned the number given in the confirmation email. A pleasant voice answered — Geanine Kane, who was in charge of merchandise. “Oh, I’ll take your name off the list,” she said. “Thanks for calling. When would you like to come?” I didn’t know what she meant, and had figured I was out close to a hundred bucks (the Ramble price used to be around $90). But she said, “Choose another Ramble. Levon doesn’t make people pay for music they don’t hear.” I picked the following Saturday.
Magic in the Catskills
Woodstock is one of the loveliest little towns — a setting toward which plants, animals, and humans have gravitated since long before time was recorded. It sits at a little hillcrest on the banks of fast-running creeks Millstream and Tannery Brook, both named for activities that used to take place in the area in the early days of settlement.
Richard Manuel and Rick Danko came to Woodstock in February 1967, as Danko tells it in Helm’s This Wheel’s On Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band (1993). “Richard and I had never been to the Catskills before, and we couldn’t believe how beautiful it was,” he recounts, “but we were frozen. We went over to Albert Grossman’s house and sat in front of a roaring fireplace with his wife, Sally. That was my introduction to Woodstock. As things happened, Sally Grossman would play a key role in our career, and Woodstock would become our home.”
After a hiatus from The Band that he spent mostly back home in Arkansas, Helm moved to Woodstock, too. The group started writing songs and singing, sometimes with Bob Dylan and sometimes without, in the basement of a nondescript house in Saugerties that was the color of diluted Pepto-Bismol. They concentrated on vocal harmonies, inspired, Helm recalled, by the Staple Singers and the Impressions, and the way they “would stack those individual voices on top of one another, each voice coming in at a different time until you got this blend that was just magic.”
That magic vocal blend — with Helm most often singing a discernible lead — became The Band’s trademark from 1967 until the original members ceased playing together after their “Last Waltz” in November 1976. Helm kept that magical blend going during the 1980s with Garth Hudson, Rick Danko, and Richard Manuel, who remained Woodstock neighbors for much of the year. They got together at the Joyous Lake, a venue on Tinker Street, and embarked on a world tour in 1983.
All the while, Helm lived in Woodstock with his wife, Sandra. At first, the big barn space was just for him and his friends, a place to make music and record. The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album, recorded there in 1975, won a Grammy. After “The Barn” burned to the ground, local craftsmen remade it better, with a high-beamed ceiling and an acoustic cupola at the roof’s apex. But Helm did not open the space to regular public concerts until he needed help paying the mortgage on his property. His medical bills for cancer treatment had taken priority.
As Helm told Karen Schoemer of New York Magazine in 2007, “I didn’t know if I was going to be able to hang onto the place, but I thought, well, I’m going to go out with a bang. I’m going to have as many Rambles as I can, and have as many people as I can get come here and enjoy the music and see the place. And then when they see that I’ve sold it, they’ll know what it was.”
Joy and ‘The Weight’
Helm was not able to sing the first time I was in the Barn. But, my lord, Alexis P. Suter was. She and her band opened the show with a full-force gale of a set. Suter, in a top hat and a 19th-century-style black gravedigger’s ribbon, blew me away with her song “Teacher Man.”
“I was there from the fourth or fifth Ramble on,” says Suter. She and her band, to which Helm gave the name Alexis P. Suter Band, opened close to a hundred Rambles during the next eight years. “The music went until three or four in the morning. There’d be one person there, and they’d still be playing. It was a never-ending show,” she says.
The rest of that night is a blur. I had gotten there early, so I grabbed a chair in the second row, stage left, next to, almost on top of, the drums. I was standing and dancing, so at the interval I offered my seat to an old gentleman in a hat and an electric-blue suit, who was clutching something in his hands. He giggled, and declined. “I’m performin,’” he said. Then: “My name’s Sammy. What’s yours?”
That was my first encounter with Little Sammy Davis, blues harmonicist extraordinaire.
What I remember best remained a standard at every Ramble I ever attended: Helm’s visible, palpable joy about what was happening in his house. He paid attention to every musician, cueing folks to play solos, smiling at them as they played. He looked around the room, from the seats to the standing room to the people leaning over the rails in the rafters, meeting the eyes of his guests. He grinned when he saw you laughing, weeping, or singing along.
And, at the end: “The Weight.”
No song, performed live, is ever the same twice, but this is spectacularly, almost eerily, true of “The Weight.” The person on the “crazy Chester” verse — usually, though not always, someone who had opened the show — could change the entire song. When Kinky Friedman was at the Ramble, he peered through his half-glasses at the words but couldn’t make them out. He laughed, stepped back, and let Larry Campbell take over for him.
When it was Mavis Staples, the Barn was a church. Levon bent over his drums, eyes closed, as if he were praying at an altar.
Memories of eight years of Rambles — those in Woodstock and on the road — loom like a benediction in my head. The Barn has been called a hallowed space by many who performed there, and by those who simply came to hear the music.
We turned Rambles into birthday celebrations: Larry Campbell’s and his mother, Maggie’s, in the same week, with a sparkler-lit cake. We paid tribute to friends who had passed but were there in spirit. Maggie Campbell’s name remains in a front-row chair. There, one night, she rolled her beautiful big eyes as Larry introduced an epic plea from a poor mother with a son in jail, dedicating it to her.
Levon made us all family, which might sound corny, but it’s true. On the night he welcomed his first grandson, he said quietly, “My baby girl done had a baby boy.” Cheers of congratulation rained on him and on the tall man in the horn section, Amy Helm’s then-husband, Jay Collins. “Papa Jay,” Levon shouted out, and that became Collins’ name for the evening.
Helm supported his musical guests in atypical and beautiful ways, too. After a sold-out show, Helm called Suter to him. “He went in his pocket and gave me $600, for my mother’s church,” she remembers. “And [he] said, ‘Pray for us. Pray for the Ramble.’ And on one of his birthdays, he’d gotten a drum set cake. He said, ‘Wrap it up and give it to Alexis for the folks at the church.’” Suter chuckles, remembering how the congregation in another state had enjoyed that.
You bring food to a Ramble — any dish people can enjoy as part of a potluck downstairs before and during the show. The Saturday we learned that Levon’s record Dirt Farmer had been nominated for a Grammy, I stopped in at Elijah’s — a lovely little restaurant, now gone — and the owner tossed a salad. In Sharpie on the Saran Wrap that covered it, he wrote “Levon’s Grammy Salad.” It was eaten eagerly, as were, on other nights, the homemade venison pate, jambalaya, heirloom tomatoes, roast chicken drumsticks, interestingly flavored and pungent brownies, and Jill Lesh’s birthday cake, which had a photo of Phil and Levon on it. When you took a break to sit outside and eat, there might be mosquitoes, or Helm’s dogs, Muddy (named for Waters) and Lucy (a stray Levon brought home), keeping you company.
The acoustic Rambles — which happened in 2009 and thereafter, from time to time, on the Friday before a full-on Saturday night — were even more intimate and special, if that was possible. There, Levon played with Amy, Larry, Teresa, Donald Fagen, and old friends who were as good as family: Jimmy Vivino, Mike Merritt, John Sebastian. “And it was in his house,” says Suter, “his own house. You’d go in one of the bathrooms, and there were towels, Listerine, you know. And no one ever took anything.”
When Helm began singing regularly again, around 2006, Erik Lawrence remembers, “The press started going crazy about it, and it truly was a medical miracle when his voice came back.”
Indeed, famous people started flocking to the Barn. Larry Campbell remembers one night in particular: “Emmylou came and sang,” he says. “She was one of the first big stars to come and perform at the Ramble. The career she’d had, and how close she was to Levon, made that one really special.”
When Ricky Skaggs came, his tour bus was too big to get down Helm’s driveway without incurring scratches from the pine and ash trees. Teresa Williams recalls: “They parked their bus out on the road and walked down that dirt road to the Barn with all their instruments.”
Lawrence remembers the night that “Elvis [Costello] and Allen Toussaint just showed up and did a couple of tunes. Then Elvis came onstage when [the Ramble band] first started, and played guitar and sang backgrounds all night. Later, I was talking to Ray LaMontagne and told him about it. He said, ‘Yeah, I know, I was there.’ He’d bought himself a ticket, and sat by the back wall, and just listened.” Indeed, there were as likely to be musical and other celebrities in the crowd as on the stage. Says Campbell, “Billy Bob Thornton came a couple of times. Jane Fonda, Jessica Lange … it was an easy place to be casual.”
No Scene, Just Songs
“[The Rambles] grew from [Levon] digging into his own roots, mostly the blues,” says Amy Helm. “He did not believe in any kind of pretension. It was a scene that had no scene, and the music was on fucking fire.”
Jimmy Vivino and Jim Weider used their guitars to fan that fire from the early days. Brian Mitchell, invited up by Erik Lawrence, blazed a blues trail through the sets with his phenomenal piano playing and covers of Dr. John and Bob Dylan, among others. In 2005, Larry Campbell, who had spent the past eight years traveling in Dylan’s band, arrived in Woodstock and never left. He became Helm’s bandleader, collaborator, and producer, and his modesty about it all surprises no one who knows him.
“I first met Levon at the Lone Star in 1979 or 1980,” Campbell says, recalling his early 20s. “I was playing with a bunch of different bands, and I was upstairs in the dressing room, just sitting up there playing the fiddle. Out of the corner of my eye I saw someone standing next to me, and it was Levon. ‘That’s some mighty fine fiddling,’ he said.”
The years passed, but the mutual admiration did not. “Levon and I had a specific rapport,” Campbell remembers. “Every time I’d see him, even casually, there’d just be something.”
A couple of years later, Helm beckoned Campbell to Woodstock. “I left Dylan’s band in January 2005,” he says, “and a couple of weeks later, Levon called. He said, ‘I heard ya left Bob. Come on up to Woodstock and let’s make some music.’”
Campbell and his wife, singer Teresa Williams, bought a home in the area. They settled into the Ramble band and a life together after years on the road — not just apart, but often in different hemispheres. Says Campbell, “After I’d done a couple of Rambles, [Teresa and I] sang together at the Bouche Bar, over on East 5th Street. It was the first time Amy had heard Teresa sing. We’d just begun [Levon’s] Dirt Farmer record [which Campbell produced], with no real plan to make a record at first, just to record some songs. It was only a matter of weeks before Teresa was a permanent part of the Ramble.”
Williams’ rich, pure voice and presence onstage not only enriched the Rambles, but reminded you that Helm, though most famous for his all-male band, welcomed women just as unreservedly, and fostered their careers with all he had. Just ask Alexis P. Suter, Mavis Staples, Carolyn Wonderland, or Grace Potter. Suter says, softly, “He wasn’t a man of many words, and when he spoke those words were powerful and insightful. … I really miss him a lot.”
This past spring, on April 20 (a popular day in the town of Woodstock), some of those women — Amy Helm and Carolyn Wonderland, Shelley King, Marcia Ball, and Cindy Cashdollar — joined bassist Brandon Morrison and drummer Lee Falco at the Barn. Their Texas-Catskill mix sailed under the name of the Woodstock Lonestars, and the show they gave was lovely.
Cowboy boots of fine varieties tapped time onstage, to the beat of Ball’s rippling blues and rolling boogie-woogie keyboard and Wonderland’s full-tilt Joplinesque performance. However, the day before had marked the fourth anniversary of Levon’s passing.
When Amy introduced “a tribute” and began the quiet start of “Atlantic City,” the rowdy audience melted into stillness. King remembered showing up for a Ramble in 2012 that did not happen, after Helm died. She spoke of the huge thunderstorm that hit Woodstock just around 8 p.m. that Saturday night. People sang along with a new song she wrote in the wake of that storm, its final couplet unforgettable:
The rhythm of the rain is a sure-fire bet
Levon’s playing his new drum set.
It was 4/20. There was the sweet-spicy smell of weed in the air outdoors, and Helm, as all who knew him know, would not have objected. Against the rough-planed wood walls, a slim woman with a chic haircut and a brown leather jacket shook her head in time with the music and smiled. It was Sally Grossman, who once upon a time had introduced Rick Danko and Richard Manuel to Woodstock with a good fire on a cold day. Talk about bringing it all back home.
These days, evenings at the barn promise folks like Joan Osborne, Richard Thompson, and Marco Benevento. More dates are announced all the time, regularly, without fanfare — the way Helm liked it.
The Barn physically embodies, and manifests, its life as a performance space and meeting place. It remains a tangible, affirmative response to Helm’s deathbed request to “keep it goin’.” And, with determination, love, and talent, Amy Helm is determined to heed her father’s request.
“I think that it … will be a place that’s open to all kinds of music,” she says. “I want musicians to feel good about who they are and what they’re doing. … [The Ramble is] a night where people connect, and forget about things they want to forget.
“That place can hold a lot of music, and it should,” she adds, adding that, in truth, “It’s becoming what it’s always been.”