I can't remember the first time I heard Levon Helm's voice. It's a warm, reassuring presence that's just always been there. During his career, it was a voice of the downtrodden and desperate, of a fun-lovin' rambler, and of a faithful farmer. Despite his Southern drawl, he was very much a voice of America.
Levon Helm did not consider himself a singer. He's perhaps more recognized as the drummer in The Band, who, in their early days, supported Bob Dylan after Dylan went electric in the '60s. With The Band, he helped kill off psychedelia and ushered in the country-rock movement of the early '70s. They pioneered the use of the clavinet years before Stevie Wonder. They gained recognition for their string of hits as well as their abilities as an ensemble. Levon's drumming is heard throughout The Band's entire catalog and is marked by a deeply-seeded amalgamation of rock and roll, country, blues, gospel, New Orleans soul, and just about every other native strand of popular music.
A random grab of Band tunes could display any one of these influences at any time, a rare skill most evident in the 1976 Martin Scorsese-directed film The Last Waltz, where The Band was support for a wide range of artists, from Dr. John to Muddy Waters to Neil Diamond.
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A whole other power came through when Levon took the vocals. That's him on "The Weight," "Up On Cripple Creek," and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," songs so ingrained you may not know who sang them, but you know them. His voice was so accessible, committed, and real, you connected to it. It brought you down to the dirt beyond any pretense, and opened you up so you could somehow sympathize with the broken Confederate soldier of "Dixie." That's power.
That power was stolen once before. Over a decade ago, cancer first appeared in his throat and silenced Helm, but he kept drumming. In time, his voice returned, weathered and weakened by illness and age, but it was still there. In the past five years, he even released two excellent studio albums, and won a Grammy in 2012 for last year's Ramble At The Ryman.
I was fortunate enough to have seen him a couple years ago at Verizon Theatre in Grand Prairie. His voice started off weak, especially on "Ophelia," but it reclaimed much of its vigor by the end of the set for "The Weight." Seeing the man sing those songs in person, those songs that mean so much and run so deep, it connected so many strands of my musical life. The experience of living with the songs was finally fulfilled.
At some point in the past couple years, The Thief returned. On Tuesday, Helm's wife and daughter posted on his website that he was "in the final stages of his battle with cancer." Today, he passed. And now that warm, familiar voice, one of the most distinct ever heard in American popular music, is silenced.