Music That Grows From The Ground

We tend to think of songwriters as fitting into certain molds: coffeehouse types who smoke American Spirits and scribble words on legal pads. Music Row scribes who bang out three chords and the truth over coffee by daily appointment. Gypsy troubadours in search of the muse who fancy themselves modern-day Kerouacs.

Too often we think of songwriting as an art form that must be written down, in the form of chords and lyrics. But the term “songwriting” can be applied to any form of musical composition – whether it be lyric, melody, rhythm, groove, jam, etc. Bob Dylan is credited as the sole writer of “Like A Rolling Stone,” but would that song be the classic it is without Al Kooper’s opening blast of B3 organ? (Kudos to the bands out there that split songwriting credits.)

In this issue, we honor the life and legacy of Levon Helm, the scrawny Arkansas drummer who helped create some of the most enduring songs in the rock canon as a member of The Band.

Helm was not a “songwriter” in the Music Row sense of the term. But he certainly thought himself a songwriter of one kind, as evidenced by his long-running dispute with guitarist Robbie Robertson over authorship of the Band’s wholesale catalog. In spite of their long-running differences, Robertson visited Levon on his deathbed and had kind words to say about his former mate in our cover story. Whatever personal differences came between them along the way, one cannot deny their musical brotherhood.

Though Helm is not credited as a writer on any of The Band’s tracks, it’s well assumed that his deep knowledge of blues, soul and country formed the bedrock of the Band sound. Helm soaked up his musical influences while growing up in Helena, Arkansas (also the home of Conway Twitty). It was in Helena that he was introduced to Walcott’s Rabbits Foot Minstrels and other traveling minstrel shows. Helm was the only Southerner – or American, for that matter – in a group whose sound drew heavily on a cross-section of Dixie roots music. The Band now stands as the unofficial godfathers of a “genre” of music that has become known as Americana. And it was Helm who held the keys to the devil’s music, so prevalent in his neck of the woods, where the roots of those sounds seemed to spring from the land itself.

In addition to his vast musical legacy, Levon’s legacy as a man will endure as well. Shortly after Levon’s death in April, Bob Dylan released a statement calling the drummer “one of the last true great spirits of my or any other generation.”

Levon’s spirit truly was palpable: it translated through his music, and whatever footage was captured on camera. You can see that glint in his eye when he’s talking about the roots of rock and roll in The Last Waltz(a film that Helm openly disparaged for much of his life.) For Levon, the music came honestly. As Bruce Springsteen has said: “We’re so used to seeing versions of the thing, Levon is the thing!”

Rolling Stones saxophonist Bobby Keys, who was Helm’s roommate in Los Angeles in the ‘60s, once told me that Levon’s good guy image was wholly genuine, saying, “He was just the salt of the earth.” It was Levon who turned Keys on to a bevy of blues harmonica players, and recommended that Keys incorporate their styles in what he was doing on the sax. “It turned out to be good advice,” Keys said.

Levon Helm taught musicians of his generation the importance of reaching back into America’s musical past. It certainly worked for The Band: the musical stew they cooked up at Big Pink, in the mid-‘60s, was unlike anything else at the time.

In our Role Models interview, Don McLean suggests that much of today’s “computer music” doesn’t help anyone. Even decades later, the music of Levon and The Band still helps people.

Author: Caine O'Rear

Caine O'Rear is a writer and editor based in Mobile, Alabama. He is the former editor in chief of American Songwriter Magazine. Follow him at

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