Man of the earth, soul for the ages: Levon passes on

Levon Helm. (Photo by Alan Carey)

“It was late on an Autumn afternoon, the maples and oaks were glowing orange and red, and I couldn’t take my eyes off Overlook Mountain and the rolling terrain,” Levon Helm wrote in his 1993 autobiography, of the moment in 1967 when he first arrived here. “From that first day, the Catskills reminded me of the Ozarks and the Arkansas hill country. I had a shock of recognition. Going to Woodstock felt like going home.”

And it felt natural and right having you here, too, Levon. It’s a little late to tell you that, now, but Woodstock did make its feelings known about you when you were given the key to the town on Levon Helm Day, or when we would come to the Rambles or flock to the Village Green or Gill Farms when you performed there. The love was mutual.


Levon Helm, drum legend, three time Grammy winner whose voice more than any other describes what is now a full fledged musical genre called ‘Americana,’ died April 19 of the cancer that nearly got him more than a decade ago. He was 71. But if you put the sticks in his hands, he could still probably lay down a backbeat and kick the hell out of his 12 piece band. His family, friends and fans no doubt made the pilgrimage to Woodstock for his wake on Thursday, April 26, held at his studio.


He backed up Dylan, and that’s how he found Woodstock; played with The Band, which had an incredible heyday in the late 1960s and early 70s, and then experienced the dregs at the bottom of the music business, watched two of his beloved colleagues, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko, perish, and the ravages of the business almost got him, too.

His reemergence in the last decade was nothing less than miraculous, not only for him and the top flight musicians who got to play with him, but for those who worked his Rambles for little or no pay, for the technicians, sound people, security, those who were smiling while working the tables and the parking lot. All knew they were a part of something magical.

He went out on top, no doubt about it. Three Grammy awards for three albums put out during the last five years; an extraordinary band, led by multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell and featuring his daughter Amy Helm, Teresa Williams, keyboardist Brian Mitchell, bassist Byron Isaacs, the blazing horn section featuring Howard Johnson, Erik Lawrence and Jay Collins, guitarist Jim Weider and Randy Ciarlante.

The Rambles, which had started out as rent parties back in 2005 to help the musician pay the mortgage on his studio/home, and to which he invited friends to play and jam, went on to become one of the most coveted tickets in all of show business, despite a $150 price tag, and attracted some of the finest players of the day, including Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Phil Lesh, Elvis Costello, Allen Toussaint, Kris Kristofferson, Hubert Sumlin, Charlie Louvin, Mumford and Sons, Hot Tuna, Robbie Dupree, Cindy Cashdollar…and any musician who got to pick up an instrument and play on one of the shows will be forever telling the story.

The Levon Helm Band was in demand and could fill the seats in any venue and put on a show to rival any in rock n’ roll in recent years.

And it was great for Woodstock, too. You could be out somewhere hearing music on a Thursday night and someone there would tell you that he and his wife were there from Vancouver for the Ramble Saturday night. And they were staying somewhere in town for a couple of days, eating in the restaurants, enjoying the town. You’d meet many with similar stories.

Levon put Woodstock back on the map, in a big way. People wouldn’t ask anymore about the festival. It was, where’s Levon’s? Have you been to a Ramble?

There are 4 comments

  1. Johanna Murdock

    Very well put Brian. An era has ended. So pleased to have been back to Woodstock to see lots of Rambles at the Barn last year. My two sons went last summer. I knew it would end and I wanted them to surround themselves in it. They did they loved it. So did my grandchildren. It was great. He will always be remembered with love.

  2. Ted Donoghue

    For many of us Levon Helm’s music goes back to when were very young growing up listing to AOR FM radio. I did get to see The Band open for the Grateful Dead in 1983 in Syracuse and it was one of my all time favorite night’s of music. The Band was recharged and playing some of their best music. The last time I saw Levon was at Gill’s Farm in ’09, it was a great show on a brisk fall day. I sadly never made it to a Ramble, but many of us followed the music online on ThePhilzone where we would see the set lists and read the reviews of those in attendance. The world has lost one of it’s great souls. My condolesences go out to the Helms and their extended musical family.
    I hope we can all again meet at Gill’s Farm this October to celebrate Levon’s legacy.

  3. Rainer Grossmann

    We were two of those people traveling over the atlantic Ocean just to see great Levon on a Ramble, for the first time for birthday Ramble on 27th May 2006. Can´t tell you our impressions, too huge because we met a nice couple in Woodstock Motel on Millstream who turned out being Levon´s best friends from Little Rock, AR. We had a little birthday present for Levon with us (a real bavarian beer mug)and they managed it for us to hand it out to Levon on our parking lot at the Motel. I had very weak knees in this moment I can tell you. In the evening we were invited an hour earlier to the barn for making photographs and looking around. For me as an old Band-Fan it was like being in heaven. And the music was way beyond everything I´d ever heard. After concert we were invited to Levon´s famous kitchen table and I asked my wife to tell me if this all is true.
    By the way on Thursday when we had been arriving in Woodstock we visited the Colony Cafe in the evening and saw you, Brian, with your Bluegrass Band. This actually was the beginning of our dream in Woodstock because it was the perfect Intro for what came in the barn later. You played an unrehearsed “Man of constant sorrow” for us, perfect! The next day we had Poppa Chubby from NYC at the Colony, Hard Rock Blues, different but also kind of Americana.
    We really became very close friends with the couple from AR and they even visited us here in our hometown Bayreuth/Germany in 2007. In 2008 we met together again at Levon´s for NYEve and 2 further concerts on that week and we were really blown away again. Levon took care of us in a way that was so touching… he was such a soul with a huge heart. Believe me we will never ever forget these days in your wonderful little town and Levon has a very special place in our hearts.

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