may 2012


You’ve Heard About the Midnight Rambler…

Considering Levon Helm

By Billy Altman

When Levon Helm died on April 16 at the age of 71, most of the obituaries noted that the cancer that eventually got him was first diagnosed in the late 1990s, and that the scores of radiation treatments Helm received in his afflicted throat threatened for some time the chances of him ever singing again. Still, he soon back at it, presiding from behind his drum kit over several guest-star studded Saturday jams at the barn/studio in the Arkansas native's beloved adopted home of Woodstock in upstate New York.

While it started as a rent party-like affair to help defray his medical bills, the "Midnight Ramble" quickly took on a life of its own, and as Helm regained his ability to sing, it blossomed into a decade-plus running series that eventually even went on the road; In fact, the very last album Helm released was 2011's Ramble at the Ryman, recorded live in '08 at Nashville's Grand Ole Opry home, the Ryman Auditorium.

The Band, ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,’ from The Last Waltz

In thinking about Helm’s life and career, it's hard not to be struck by the entire story of the Midnight Ramble and to understand just what it meant to him. Up until then, Levon’s musical profile was defined almost exclusively by his work with the Band--hardly surprising, given that it was his voice that gave us "The Weight," and "Up on Cripple Creek," and "Rag Mama Rag," and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." But as any fan of that iconic group surely knows, all those songs were composed by Robbie Robertson, the Band's guitarist and chief songwriter. And fans of the Band also surely know just how bad was the split between the two when Robertson dissolved the group in 1976 after the much-heralded Last Waltz concert in San Francisco.

Levon Helm, ‘Anna Lee,’ Ramble at the Ryman 2011

Helm never forgave Robertson, not only for abandoning his group mates after The Last Waltz--a concert Helm didn't want to do to begin with--but also for taking sole writing credit on songs he later contended all of the group helped create. Those are but two of the many harsh criticisms leveled against his former friend found in Helm's autobiography This Wheel's On Fire, whose appearance in 1993 just about insured that the two would never speak again. Indeed, when the Band was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in '94, Helm didn't attend, refusing to share the stage with Robertson. (Robertson, who, it should be noted, never said a bad word about Helm through it all, did visit him in his New York hospital bed after learning he was dying.)

I'm no dime store psychiatrist, but I do think that a significant part of Helm's bitterness towards Robertson had to do with the fact that to a great extent Helm had served as Robertson's muse in the Band.

‘Only Halfway Home,’ a short film featuring Levon Helm and music from his Dirt Farmer album

While they were (and are still) regarded as a quintessential "roots" group, the simple fact is that Robertson, as well as Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson--in other words, everyone except Levon Helm--were all Ontario, Canada born and bred. It was Helm, the drawling, molasses-voiced, fat backbeat-savvy Southerner, who innately gave them their air of downhome authenticity. And through him, Robertson and the entire group was able to craft their vision of the physical, and metaphysical, backbone of rural America in all its mythic, faded glory.

Levon Helm and the Midnight Ramblers, ‘Ophelia,’ February 2012

Because of this, when the original Band broke up, the stories and messages coming through Helm via Robertson were silenced and with it, to a great extent, so was Helm's voice. (And, one might well argue, so was Robertson's; can anyone name even one memorable song from his post-Band work over the last 35 years?) In this light, you can really understand just how angrily Helm dealt with the dissolution of their once so fertile partnership, which had started back in the waning days of the 1950s with the outsized rockabilly vocalist/showman Ronnie Hawkins. But in battling throat cancer, and beating it down successfully enough to launch not only a comeback, but an entirely productive second career over the last dozen years, Levon Helm found his voice again, both literally and artistically. And that it all would hinge on the Midnight Ramble somehow makes perfect sense. As explained in his autobiography, the name came from the late night separate admission "hootchie kootchie" shows tacked on at the end of performances by the Rabbit Food Minstrels troupe from Mississippi that Helm and his family would go see whenever they'd pass through the Helena Arkansas, area where he grew up. The medicine show's leader? Why, a guy named Walcott. Of course.

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