Levon Helm – Midnight rambler
Sometimes the circle really is unbroken. Consider that the seeds of Levon Helm’s new album Dirt Farmer and the intimate “Midnight Ramble” concerts he performs in his home studio were planted on a cotton farm in Turkey Scratch, Arkansas. Helm’s dad, Jason Diamond Helm, met his future wife Nell when he was playing guitar at a house party that charged two bits a head and served white lightning in fruit jars. The couple had four children; Levon was the second, born in 1940. J.D. taught Levon “Sitting On Top Of The World” when Levon was 4 years old, and the parents taught their children songs such as “Little Birds” and “The Girl I Left Behind”, both of which are on Dirt Farmer.
Levon’s first concert memory is of Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys in 1946, when Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs were still in the band. One of the shows he recalls from nearby Helena, Arkansas, was the F.S. Walcott Rabbits Foot Minstrels; years later, Robbie Robertson would mine those memories (and slightly change the name) to write “The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show”. Young Levon looked forward to when he would be old enough to attend the more risque revue known as the Midnight Ramble.
Amy Helm was born in 1970 in Woodstock, New York. Her drummer dad Levon had joined rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins in the late 1950s; together, Helm and Hawkins went to Canada and found four other guys to fill out the band, making it Ronnie Hawkins & the Hawks. The Hawks would later be hired by Bob Dylan to back him on his first mid-’60s electric tour. Then the Hawks became The Band and released two remarkable records of almost incomparable influence, 1968’s Music From Big Pink and 1969’s self-titled album. Amy’s mom, Libby Titus, put out an LP in 1977 that included her enduring co-write with Eric Kaz, “Love Has No Pride”. After breaking up with Helm in the mid-’70s, Titus was seriously linked with Dr. John; in 1993, she married Donald Fagen of Steely Dan. Levon has been married to Sandra Dodd since 1981.
On Thanksgiving Day in 1976, The Band essentially ended with The Last Waltz, a concert at San Francisco’s Winterland that was filmed by Martin Scorsese and featured The Band playing with such musical influences and peers as Muddy Waters, Van Morrison and Bob Dylan. Excepting essential studio footage shot with Emmylou Harris and the Staple Singers, principal songwriter and guitarist Robbie Robertson would never again perform with the group, which reunited without him in 1983 but never came close to regaining the glory of its past. Robertson would also never again make such fine music.
The 1990s were tough on Helm. In 1991, his Woodstock home and adjoining recording studio burned to the ground. Helm rebuilt — now there are no nails in the vaulted ceiling of the recording room — but the wolf was at the door, and he declared bankruptcy three times to protect his property. Then the singer who inhabited songs such as “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Rag Mama Rag” was diagnosed with throat cancer. After 28 radiation treatments, Helm beat the cancer, but his voice was reduced to a whispery rasp.
By then, Amy Helm had graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in psychology and was singing in a variety of bands around New York City. She joined her father in the Barn Burners, a blues band he formed while in recovery. “There was no grieving about losing his voice,” says Amy, “because we were so grateful that he’d survived the cancer. For the Barn Burners, he put all his efforts into drumming. He changed the way he set up his kit, and really attacked the drums.”
Slowly, Levon’s voice returned, scratchier than before but still very soulful. “He and I started to sing a little bit with each other,” Amy says. “I remember one day he taught me the words to a few of the old hymns, and I recorded him with a little hand-held tape recorder so I could learn the tunes. I was excited when I listened to it back, because his voice was getting stronger.”
As the Barn Burners became the Levon Helm Band, Amy was finding her own niche as a member of Ollabelle. Levon reportedly had health insurance, but the bout with cancer had driven him deeper into debt. His Midnight Ramble house-concerts conjure a communal affair, but they’re really old-fashioned rent parties, though instead of costing two bits, the “contribution” for the early, occasional Ramble was $100. These days there’s about two a month, and the price is $150.
Larry Campbell, a multi-instrumentalist who spent seven years on the road with Bob Dylan, loves playing the Ramble. “For those two hours, you’re doing exactly what you’d hoped you’d be doing with your life,” he says. “I remember early on when I was playing with Bob, and there was something like 50,000 people out there, and we’re doing ‘Forever Young’ at the end of the show and I thought, ‘Man, this is pretty cool.’ And that’s one of how many songs? But this Ramble is something else, like the audience are friends or family. That’s what it feels like, so there’s no anxiety.”
And from intimate, small-town concerts, a fine record has emerged. “I had wanted for years for my dad to record an album of songs that he had taught to me,” says Amy, “some of which he had learned from his parents. We started recording songs just to document them without a real vision of where it might lead, and it just sort of took shape as we went.”
Campbell, who’d already produced Ollabelle’s second outing, quickly agreed to play and help with the sessions. “All the music that means anything to me, the genuine American music — blues, rock ‘n’ roll, country, bluegrass, gospel — Levon can perform and sing with complete authority,” Campbell says. “That’s what The Band did back in the day — they took all these relatively disparate genres and blended them into one unique thing. Levon’s my favorite singer in the world. And it’s not that he learned how to do this; he just is it.”
Campbell says he wanted to make “an acoustic album with some sass to it,” and tunes such as Paul Kennerley’s “Got Me A Woman” and J.B. Lenoir’s “Feelin’ Good” more than meet that criterion. Steve Earle’s “The Mountain” was recorded the very day Helm first heard the song on Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now” program; Levon set it to a 4/4 rhythm at his daughter’s suggestion. The result is a song that boasts not just background vocals by Buddy & Julie Miller, but the wooden thump of a song by The Band.
The music of Dirt Farmer reflects the casual nature in which it was made; the singing and playing is accomplished, but also favors feel over virtuosity. That’s often the preference for a natural musician, and few are as nonchalantly gifted as Helm. He hits the snare drum like a natural rock ‘n’ roller, and he’s a born singer; can you hear anybody else when you read the words, “Catch a cannonball now, t’take me down the line?” There’s also something terribly moving about having a familiar voice brought back from silence, damaged yet distinct, and as comfy as a good warm coat.