Levon Helm

Rolling Stone reports that Levon Helm, the great Americana drummer and singer, has died in New York, a few days after his family posted a statement that he was in the “final stages” of cancer. Helm, a former member of the Band, had been battling throat cancer for more than a decade. He was 71.

The Arkansas-born Helm got his start in the Hawks, the backing band for the Canada-based rockabilly musician Ronnie Hawkins. The Hawks eventually split with Hawkins, touring with Helm as the frontman and eventually backing Bob Dylan on tour and on The Basement Tapes. In 1967, after Helm had left for a couple of years to work on oil rigs, they became simply the Band, the iconic country-rock group who released a string of classics (e.g., their debut Music From Big Pink in ’68) and had Martin Scorsese document their star-studded final show with the great concert film The Last Waltz. He went on to tour and record with various later versions of the Band and, later, performed as an actor (see Coal Miner’s Daughter) and solo artist. Below, watch him at work.

Comments (30)
  1. R.I.P. to a true American legend. In high school, I woke up to “The Weight” on my alarm clock every day for about two years. Even to an agnostic like myself, that song was a spiritual palette cleanser. Helm (and the other members of the Band who have passed before him) will be sorely missed and their contribution to classic Americana can’t be overstated.

  2. The second paragraph makes it sound like The Hawks were backing Dylan on an album called “Music from the Big Pink” before they became The Band. I’d rewrite that.

  3. Dang, he was supposed to play in Northampton (Mass) tomorrow night. I drunkenly belted out “the Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” with a big, bearded guy at a party last weekend… What a loss, he was still putting out some great work towards the end of his life, and of course his stuff with the Band is incomparably good.

  4. “Levon was the glue, not just in The Band, but in all of what people think of when they think of North American music. He was a great unifier; a great glue. He unified blues and country, rural and city, and even North and South. Luckily he showed us all the way to keep it together and let it swing.”
    - Jeff Tweedy

  5. I’m sorry, but this post is a mess. It’s “Music From Big Pink”, not “Music From The Big Pink”, and it’s a Band album, not a Dylan album.

    • I was just about to say the same thing. What a great way to pay tribute to one of the best drummers and vocalist to ever play rock and roll, right? I’m guessing the dude who wrote this had to youtube “Levon Helm” and “The Band” when he got asked to cover the story.

      • It’s an understandable mistake since the British band (not to be confused with The Band) The Big Pink gets covered often here on Stereogum and, for that matter, their name derives from the album title. From Wikipedia: “Robbie Furze and Milo Cordell started making music as The Big Pink in 2007, taking their name from the debut album by The Band.”

        So no, it wasn’t lazy writing or anything, just an easy slip-up that actually has more to do with the topic at hand than you’re actually aware of. I suggest broadening your music horizons, otherwise you might have caught that.

        • That’s all strikes me as pretty unlikely, especially considering the artist-accreditation slip-up in the very same sentence. Don’t be smug, Tom made a mistake.

          • Sorry, I forgot that music blog writers are supposed to be faultless humans made in the image of God (which I take it is you?) and subconsciously interjecting the more-relevant-to-Stereogum-writing-topic of The Big Pink and their website name (aka musicfromthebigpink.com) in place of The Band’s album is 100% unlikely to occur.

            TOM, YOU ARE THEREBY SENTENCED TO DEATH IN THE LION’S DEN.

        • The sentence was totally sloppy. Sloppy sentences are usually not that big a deal, but a sloppy sentence about one of the most vital bands of the 60′s in an article about the death of one of its two best-known members is a bit embarrassing.
          And confusion stemming from a much lesser band might be a good enough excuse to you, but to some it shows either laziness or a stunning lack of knowledge about both The Band and Dylan.

          • As someone who was raised on a steady diet of punk rock, hardcore and alternative, I can honestly say I had no idea Levon Helm was in The Band, worked with Bob Dylan and merely thought he was some perennial old folk musician that the Newport Folk Festival wheelchaired out every year on their lineup.

          • (I guess this is my “Who is Paul McCartney?” moment, but this is coming from someone who never got the appeal of Bob Dylan and has avoided him and anything related to him his entire life.)

          • I honestly feel sorry for you, Michael. Then again, I’m also excited for you in that you have the opportunity to discover the Band for the first time.

  6. Rest in peace Levon. Its a sad day for music.

  7. Hit me like a ton of bricks when I woke up this morning and heard. Regardless of his feeling on it, I dare anyone to watch The Last Waltz and not become a Levon Helm fan for life. RIP.

  8. So, so sad about this. It really feels like losing family.

    Just as a note though, second post in a row that feels like a wikipedia by number about, arguably, one of the most important drummers in American rock and roll. Make the changes suggested above – you’ve got a mistitled Band album attributed to Bob Dylan. And Tom, no kidding, you have got to go and listen to Music From Big Pink. You won’t regret it. I promise. Do it for Levon.

  9. Levon was supposed to perform tomorrow night a few towns over from where I live, but apparently decided he’d rather die than be caught dead in Western Massachusetts. I don’t blame him. R.I.P.

  10. Been listening to The Last Waltz all day…real bummer.

  11. “He was my bosom buddy friend to the end, one of the last true great spirits of my or any other generation. This is just so sad to talk about. I still can remember the first day I met him and the last day I saw him. We go back pretty far and had been through some trials together. I’m going to miss him, as I’m sure a whole lot of others will too.”
    - Bob Dylan

    “When I heard The Band’s Music from Big Pink, their music changed my life. And Levon was a big part of that band. Nigel Olson, my drummer, will tell you that every drummer that heard him was influenced by him. He was the greatest drummer and a wonderful singer and just a part of my life that was magical. They once flew down to see me in Philadelphia and I couldn’t believe it. They were one of the greatest bands of all time. They really changed the face of music when their records came out. I had no idea he was sick so I’m very dismayed and shocked that he died so quickly. But now my son [Zachary Jackson Levon Furnish-John] has his name.”
    - Elton John

  12. Levon Helm will definitely be missed and remembered as one of the best drummers and a great artist. Him being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Fame was definitely warranted.

  13. Anyone who has seen “Observe and Report” can attest to how awesome, “When I Paint My Masterpiece” is from “Cahoots”. I think it could be his finest song. I’ll miss the man and am incredibly sad I missed his “Midnight Rambler” shows. R.I.P. You’re a legend.

  14. RIP, Levon. Music from Big Pink and The Band were landmark albums to me and instrumental to starting my love for Appalachian music.

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