Levon Helm

29 Sep

The latest edition of American Songwriter has a great story about the late Levon Helm, which made me purchase my first ever copy.

Like a lot of other people, I read about Helm’s passing earlier this year, and, for some reason, it struck me enough to read more about who he was. As it turns out, I knew all about him before I knew about him. Doesn’t make sense? Then, I’ll put it this way. I had been enjoying the talents of Levon Helm all of my life and never realized it.

To me, the most entertaining songs are the ones that tell a story and allow me to direct a scene in my mind. Two songs that attracted my attention as a kid were performed by The Band and, unknown to me at the time, sung by Helm. One was “The Weight“, with lyrics that took me into a world that was just a little different from the real one. My favorite part went:

I picked up my bag and I went lookin’ for a place to hide

When I saw Carmen and the Devil walkin’ side by side

And I said, “Hey, Carmen, come on, would you go downtown”

And she said, “Well, I gotta go but my friend can stick around”

The entire song is great, but that line always stuck with me. The Band also performed “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down“, a song about the destruction caused by the Civil War. Maybe, it’s because I live in the South. Maybe, it’s because I am a historian. But, I agree with the magazine article that this song should be played for every class about the Civil War. It is a haunting song with lines like:

Back with my wife in Tennessee, when one day she called to me

“Virgil, quick, come see, there go the Robert E. Lee”

Now I don’t mind choppin’ wood, and I don’t care if the money’s no good

Ya take what ya need and ya leave the rest

But they should never have taken the very best.

As I read about Helm’s career, I realized that there was one thing I needed to do to honor him. I had to see The Last Waltz, the movie about the last concert of The Band that is considered to be the greatest concert film ever made. Luckily, the Belcourt, Nashville’s historic theater, was going to give me the opportunity. As the movie played, I realized a couple of things. Helm was the soul of The Band, and Robbie Robertson thought he was the soul of The Band. The movie focused on Robertson and missed the real story. No wonder the two men never got along after its filming.

But, here’s the thing. I had seen Helm in movies before and never realized it. I have seen The Right Stuff numerous times and never realized that he narrated the movie and played Jack Ridley, the best friend of Chuck Yeager.

He also play Mr. Rate in Shooter, a movie where Mark Wahlberg is framed for the assassination of the president. I know that it sounds dumb on the surface. However, I promise that it is good, Helm plays in the most memorable scene.

As I wrote, I knew Levon Helm before I really knew him. He sang some of my favorite songs, and he acted in some of my favorite movies. It was only after his death that I realized that he was more than a singer and an actor. He was the foundation of one of the greatest bands ever assembled. His talent altered music. In short, he was Levon.

6 Responses to “Levon Helm”

  1. Norcalvol September 29, 2012 at 06:34 #

    My wife and I watch The Last Waltz every Thanksgiving. Not because we are nostalgic, but because it is a great film with great moments of music.

    I saw it when it was released to the movie theaters – saw it at some place in Knoxville long forgotten. It was in the age before MTV, when seeing a musical hero ( mine were many, including Dylan and Muddy Waters) was like magic. “Did he really look like that? Wow, look how he holds the guitar while playing the bridge!”

    After all the repeated viewings, I still find something interesting that I’d never seen before.

    I once tried to find the Winterland Ballroom out here in San Francisco, only to find it doesn’t exist anymore.

    That’s OK because it reappears every Thanksgiving weekend, looking as mysterious as ever.

    • surroundedbyimbeciles September 29, 2012 at 15:34 #

      That’s a great Thanksgiving tradition. I was going to look for the Winterland the next time I’m in SF. Now, I know that’s not going to work.

      I came to The Last Waltz late, but it’s one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen – recorded or live.

  2. Robert {Bob] king November 2, 2012 at 20:02 #

    Having seen Levon many times and knowing the story of the Band ,The Hawks and the Rambles when he passed I felt that I lost the center of my Musical world. I didn’t play his music for Several months. What I found during this time was that I couldn’t do without it, I love to turn people on to his music. There aren’t too many of my friends that don’t know Levon at some point in his music Life. The last thing that I know that he recorded was on “the Lost Notebook of Hank Williams” and his voice is as big as ever. Bob King

    • Rick November 2, 2012 at 20:25 #

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. I wasn’t lucky enough to see him live, and that is something I will always regret. It wasn’t until recently that I realized his impact on music.


  1. Honors for the Deceased « Surrounded By Imbeciles - February 13, 2013

    […] Levon Helm was famous for being the drummer for The Band, where he was also lead vocal on many of their most popular songs. He was also in a couple of cool movies. […]

  2. Movie Wisdom – Levon Helm Edition | SBI: A Thinning Crowd - April 7, 2016

    […] I watched the movie, I thought about a post that I wrote about Levon Helm. It would be great if you read it. That post is about his music, but it is also about his movies. In the Electric Mist was the last […]

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