At the helm: The rebirth of a legend

Woodstock’s Levon Helm wins Grammy Awards and celebrates the birth of a grandson while keeping up with his popular Garage Rambles.
When Levon Helm walked onstage to the cheers of fans at a “Gramble Ramble” party in his home last Sunday, his legendary smile stretched just a bit farther, and with good reason. Minutes earlier, in the kitchen, he learned of his Grammy win.
“Isn’t that a blessing?” he said, days later in a voice left raspy from the crush of well-wishers and the media. “All of my wishes have just about come true this last week.”

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In addition to his Grammy for the album “Dirt Farmer,” Helm, 67, won a Lifetime Achievement Award as an original member of The Band, Bob Dylan’s former backup group, whose living bandmates also include Garth Hudson of Woodstock, and fellow Canadian Robbie Robertson. In the 1960s, the men recorded and hung out with Dylan at a house called Big Pink, in Saugerties.

Then, the day before Helm won the Grammy, daughter Amy Helm, also on the winning album, gave birth sooner than expected to a boy, Lavon, her father’s given middle name.

“He wanted to get here early for the Grammy,” Helm said, with his familiar warm laugh.

Helm’s good fortune is in tune with a belief he knows from experience: “Miracles can happen.” He has needed them. In 1991, his home was destroyed by fire. Five years later he was diagnosed with throat cancer. His home was rebuilt, a barn-shaped structure that also houses a studio as well as a space for the series of concerts or “rambles” he started four years ago.

As for the cancer, he appears to have conquered it.

“Those people down at (Memorial) Sloan-Kettering (Cancer Center), they really did save my bacon for me,” he said.

The task included nearly 30 radiation treatments, however, that initially left him dragging. He continued drumming, but his voice became a whisper, bringing into question the vocal component of his career. Attendees at Helm’s festive Grammy party last Sunday, however, were witnesses of his hard-fought reclamation. Barry Samuels, co-owner of the Golden Notebook bookstore in Woodstock, said recognition for the musician and singer was “long overdue” for his current work as well as earlier efforts.

“I think he’s at the top of his game right now,” Samuels said, after the show. “I think when people think of ‘The Band,’ they think of Levon.”

Neighbor Sam Magarelli called Helm a “town treasure.”

Of course he is known way beyond Woodstock, and not just for his music. Helm has appeared in a string of movies, including “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “The Dollmaker,” and “The Right Stuff,” so he’s used to cameras. It’s a good thing, because a television crew from RFD-TV was in his face at his Grammy party. He didn’t mind, though. That means people with access, including DirecTV, DISH Network and some cable systems can, in a couple of weeks, hear and judge Helm’s musical merit for themselves.

The Grammy people did for the traditional folk category, and they chose Helms’ first solo studio recording in 25 years. He put it together with encouragement from his daughter, Amy, who produced the album along with Larry Campbell, a former Dylan sideman. Campbell, who wielded his fiddle, guitar and mandolin to great appreciation at the Sunday celebration, said he was “thrilled” to win a Grammy with Helm.

“There’s nothing more complete and satisfying than to play with Levon,” he said. “It’s all about the joy of music, nothing else. That’s as pure as it gets. There’s no trip, no agenda.”

Sharing that pure joy were band members Jimmy Vivino, Mike Merritt, Steve Bernstein, Erik Lawrence and Grammy-album participants Brian Mitchell and Campbell’s wife, Teresa Williams.

Blues artist Little Sammy Davis sat in as well as Phoebe Snow, the dynamic clear-voiced singer whose 1974 chart-hitting song “Poetry Man” only hinted at her depth, height and facility of range.

“She tore the roof off the place,” Helm said. “It’s just amazing how much power she has.”

Snow also is Amy Helm’s godmother. So she’s like family, and family means a lot to Helm. It shows on his “Dirt Farmer” album, dedicated to his mother and father, Nell and Diamond Helm, and filled with music that is near and dear. A favorite is “Little Birds.”

“That’s one of the first songs my parents taught me,” he said, “and it was one of the first songs where I became conscious of where to place harmony parts. ”

Helm started listening and absorbing roots music as a country boy born in Elaine, Ark., a tiny community southeast of Little Rock. He spoke fondly of “singings” at church while he was grade-school age.

“They used to have a wonderful thing called an all-day singing with dinner on the ground,” he said. “Everybody would make picnic baskets and bring them to the church. They’d get out a big meal at dinner time. They’d lay out bed sheets and put the food out … all lined up, a row of bed sheets and a big tub of lemon-aide down at the end. It was great.”

Helm’s rambles are similar to those good times, he said, in a spiritual sense.

“You know, music is supposed to have that kind of effect,” he said. “It’s supposed to take you out of these troubles and misfortunate times.”

Helm said he has been wanting to do a Gospel Sunday event at one of his rambles, and in March that is scheduled to happen. The Ulster County Community Outreach Choir, with The Rev. Dennis Washington, will take part.

As for the future?

“We’re gonna try to keep on truck’n,'” Helm said, largely his attitude even before challenges like cancer. He hasn’t made a lot of life changes since the diagnosis, he said, but there are some.

“I don’t want to waste a lot of time,” he said. “I’m more conscious of that. I enjoy playing a lot more than I did, because I had it taken away from me for awhile. But I think my attitude is just mainly to let the professionals call the shots, and try and work my program. By giving it your all, they do the same thing.”

For now, Helm plans to concentrate on promoting “Dirt Farmer” through concerts and shows. Also, he, his daughter, Campbell, Williams and Davis want to do some recording. Friends from Ireland will be stopping by to work on an album as well. A group from Findland already has come and gone.

“They like that rustic sound we’ve got,” Helm said, with the hint of a chuckle.

Last Sunday’s party had that touch as well. A fireplace warmed guests in the back row during the packed show, while others absorbed the rising heat as they leaned over a railing one level above the stage. Not so rustic was the state-of-the art equipment used by the RFD-TV camera crew, and the vibe was electric.

Helm said his home-spun celebration felt right. It allowed him to play special songs, including “Tears of Rage,” in honor of former Band members including two who died, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel. Helm said he was aware that others in the crowd were thinking, also, of the men who helped shape rock favorites like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and “The Weight.”

“I knew these were the people who loved Rick and Richard, too,” he said, “and I knew they were pulling for me.”

In the midst of such camaraderie, Helm took a big gulp of something he calls good medicine – music. Why would he travel to Los Angeles, where others were featured and he could not partake?

“If I can’t perform, they don’t really need me out there,” he said, “just to kind of sit there and wave at the camera.

“It just felt more for real and less phony to have our own Woodstock celebration.”

Meanwhile the calls have been coming in. The first was from Helm buddy Jeff Hanna, guitarist and vocalist for the Grammy-winning Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Another of the firsts came from Steve Buckingham, an executive at Vanguard Records, the “Dirt Farmer” label.

The highly prestigious awards for Helm’s work and accompanying accolades, a big party to celebrate and a new grandson to love, all have lifted him a bit above his grounded country roots. Has he come down to earth yet?

“No, I haven’t. I haven’t come down at all,” he said. “I’m still just kind of sitt’n’ around. With that stunned kind of grin on my face.”

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