When Mavis Staples taped her first Austin City Limits episode on June 27, she earned a thunderous standing ovation after her fourth song, one she first recorded with the Staples Singers in 1968. After soaking in the applause, she said simply, “Levon Helm. Levon Helm.”
The clapping got even louder. “Oh, yes. Oh, yes,” she nodded. “Our dear brother had to leave us, but he’s not far away. And he left us so much sweet music.”
Then she repeated his name twice more, like an invocation.
The song, of course, was “The Weight,” which Helm didn’t write – he penned virtually none of the Band classics he stamped so indelibly with his Arkansas drawl and cymbal-punctuated drumming – but he channeled it, and so many others, as surely as the Mississippi channels its way through the Delta where he was born.
It’s been months since his April 19 death from throat cancer at 71 – and three-and-a-half decades since his partnership (and friendship) with Band mate Robbie Robertson ended with The Last Waltz – but the impact Helm made with Robertson’s words and music was so strong, artists are still invoking his name in tributes from stages all over the world. “Ophelia,” “Rag Mama Rag,” the whimsical “Up On Cripple Creek,” and the plaintive “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (which Helm stopped singing because he so disliked Joan Baez’s version, according to Band organ/accordion/sax player Garth Hudson) – they’re all a testament to Robertson’s songwriting brilliance, but they would never have affected generations of listeners without Helm’s contributions.
Guitarist Larry Campbell, who co-produced Helm’s comeback album, Dirt Farmer, with Helm’s daughter, Amy, and produced its follow-up, Electric Dirt, first saw The Band when they backed Bob Dylan at the famed Carnegie Hall Woody Guthrie tribute in 1968. He was 13.
“I always felt that Levon was the heart and soul of that group, and I always felt that group was ground zero for what has become the Americana genre,” Campbell says. “It’s because of the uniqueness of what they did at the time, which was blending all these diverse styles of American roots music into something else. They took all the ingredients and baked their own cake with it. Nobody had heard that until they did this. The folk movement, the rock and roll thing, the country thing, the folk-rock genre, all that stuff was goin’ on at the time, but the gumbo that they made out of all that was what has become the Rosetta stone of Americana music.”
The Band’s sound was the first perfect synthesis of American roots music, folding folk, blues, soul, jazz, country, bluegrass, rockabilly, gospel and funk into great American rock and roll. And its continuing influence cannot be overstated.
“Levon Helm’s legacy in American pop music history is certified, and it’s absolute and well-deserving,” says Bob Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum and longtime music educator. “Helm was the kind of person who not only appreciated the complexity of American roots music, but also the simple beauty and passion of it – the complexity being how it tied into race and religion and southern culture, and the simplicity of how it just made people feel good.”
Avett Brothers bassist Bob Crawford, who, as a 16-year-old, fell asleep nightly to an auto-looping cassette of Bob Dylan and the Band’s 1974 live album, Before The Flood, puts it slightly more succinctly.
“The Band, that is Americana,” he says. “That’s Americana before there was Americana.”
Santelli remembers asking Helm about the cover photo for The Band, their second album, which resembles a vintage tintype. “I said, ‘You look like you were from another century.’ And he said, ‘Well, in a way, we were. We never got into the hippie stuff coming out of San Francisco. We were so separated and isolated being in the Saugerties in upper New York state, we just dressed like we did. We just did what we did and it was all about the music.’”
Crawford is among many young artists taking both sartorial and musical cues from the Band. He refers to their music, specifically, as “that bridge between our nation’s past and our nation’s future.”
“The greatest thing for me was always the visual nature of the sound, and how different that was from the other music I listened to,” Crawford adds. “You could see the pastures of hay bales and the burning trains or fields from the Civil War. You really felt that. It was so real. There was just a feeling that the music was lost in time. So much about Levon’s voice in particular just defines that. There’s no other modern American music that touches that.”