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.
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.
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!”
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.