Levon Helm's Last Rock & Roll Ramble
Levon Helm ascended into the rock & roll pantheon in the late 1960s as the drummer for The Band, with his vocals propelling many of the group’s signature tracks.
The gravelly Southern growl of the man from Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, injects songs like Up on Cripple Creek, The Weight and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down with an identity that helped enshrine The Band as one of the most influential groups of the period.
But by the late 1990s and early 2000s, Helm was facing bankruptcy and the loss of his home while battling throat cancer that left him unable to speak above a whisper, let alone sing.
In the face of these difficulties, he began hosting live music in the barn at his Woodstock home in 2004, dubbing them “Midnight Rambles,” laid-back, potluck get-togethers that soon attracted loyal audiences and a long list of stellar guest performers.
That’s when John W. Barry, a seasoned journalist and music writer, met Helm, whose home and recording studio on Plochmann Lane in Woodstock became a gathering place for friends and followers.
Barry recently published Levon Helm: Rock, Roll & Ramble –The Inside Story of the Man, the Music and the Midnight Ramble, a detailed, intimate account of the drummer’s journey from near insolvency and illness to Grammy-winning recording artist.
Helm called those Midnight Rambles “The easiest thing I’ve ever done. The whole place turns into a temple for me.”
The shows featured the host’s band performing a repertoire that included songs from The Band as well as cuts from Helm’s solo recordings and traditional blues, occasionally with top musicians sitting in. On a given night you might hear Phil Lesh and Donald Fagan joining Helm on a rendition of The Grateful Dead’s Shakedown Street.
“You definitely felt like you were playing in someone’s living room,” Brian Mitchell, keyboardist in Helm’s band, says in the book. “The audience was staring you right in the face …We felt it on stage.”
Saxophonist Erik Lawrence, a former Rocklander who played at the Rambles from 2004-2012, said Helm “could take a really good band like we had and make them sound like the best band in the world, just like he did with a bunch of Canadiens. And he could take some superstar like Elvis Costello or Chris Robinson or Sheryl Crow, and as soon as he kicks in on the drums on a tune, I can’t tell you — from where I stood on the back of the stage — how many times I saw a superstar’s knees buckle as soon as he kicked in.”
'He never quit'
Barry, who grew up in Rockland County and was a reporter for The Journal News and Poughkeepsie Journal, met Helm in 2004 during an interview for a PoJo article about the Midnight Rambles.
“I met him after he had recovered from cancer and had gotten his voice back, at least for speaking, and he had kind of come out of bankruptcy and almost losing his home,” he said in a recent interview.
“He was a very real person who obviously had no use for the trappings of fame,” said Barry, who now lives in Kingston.
Barry spent parts of the next eight years following Helm across the country, “retracing his steps through the crowds and the concerts, the struggles and the sold-out shows, the loneliness and the laughter, the desperation and the drama … along the highways and dirt roads, the red carpets and the creaky floorboards.”
The book also recounts Helm’s musical beginnings in Arkansas, including joining singer Ronnie Hawkins, who's touring group, The Hawks, came to include Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson, who later became The Band. Helm also retells how he and his bandmates began their association with Bob Dylan.
While those parts of the drummer’s legendary career have been covered by numerous books and films, Barry’s account breaks ground by focusing on Helm’s final act before he died of cancer in 2012, culminating in multiple Grammy Awards for his solo work.
As the author writes on his book’s final page: “It all leaves you pondering the manner in which this poor kid from cotton country burst onto the world stage, won it all, lost it, then got it all back again. Levon’s life was stitched together with a fraying patchwork of triumphant climbs, steep drops, sharp turns, near misses, and head-on collisions. But the secret to Levon’s success is that he always bounced back. He always got back in the game for another swing. He never quit.”
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Read more by Robert Brum at robertbrum.com